Author: Brendan Chris
Lt Cmdr Simon Jeffery, Chief Engineer of the USS Silverado (In theory, anyway. He hadn’t actually served aboard the ship in ages.) turned his head to the side and vomited profusely.
“Yup, he’s still alive,” a voice said as Jeffery chocked and gasped for air.
“Luckily us Hazardous Team types are well versed in a variety of useful, life-saving skills!” another voice said, sounding rather proud.
“Sure, but I’m still telling the whole crew that you were making out with Jeffery,” the original voice said.
“We were NOT making out! I was giving him CPR!”
“As soon as you start using tongue, it’s not CPR anymore,”
There was the sound of scuffling, then a shot of sand hit Jeffery across the face. Finally, he opened his eyes and struggled to sit up.
“Ah’m never drinkin’ again,” he muttered to himself. As his memories rushed back however, he remembered that over-indulgence had nothing to do with the pounding in his head, at least not this time. He was seated on a white, sandy beach with nothing but rippling ocean as far as the eye could see. The first word that would have popped into his mind would have been ‘pristine’, if only the beach weren’t littered with smashed spaceship parts. Whatever had happened to the Qu’Eh runabout they’d stolen, Jeffery was willing to bet that at least half of it was now scattered across the stretch of sand in pieces no bigger than Jeffery himself. A few feet to his left, Marsden and Simmons were rolling around on the sand, each one intent on twisting the other’s head off.
“Oy! Jeffery croaked, “Shut it! Yer making me head split!”
“It’s better to let them get it out of their systems,” T’Parief’s voice advised, “Otherwise we will have to listen to them whine and bicker for the next several hours.”
“Whot…” Jeffery looked around, but didn’t see the green officer anywhere. Sandy beach, rippling ocean, grasses and small trees leading into jungle or forest, yeah he saw all of that. But of T’Parief, there was no sign.
“Look up,” now the reptile sounded almost amused.
Jeffery did, finding himself staring straight at T’Parief’s stomach. The reptile was about ten meters above the ground, perched in a large, flexible-looking tree.
“Whatcha doin’?” Jeffery asked, rather dumbly.
“I was thrown into this tree when the runabout crashed,” T’Parief explained, “And as it is an excellent vantage point, I’ve opted to stay up here while the others handled rescue and first-aid,”
Jeffery followed the tip of T’Parief’s tail, which was pointing back along his ‘flight path’ to the shattered remains of the runabout. It had crashed into a sort of split mountain-top, two peaks wide enough to admit the cockpit of the ship but not wide enough for the main body. Jeffery realized that the cockpit must have broken free and disintegrated as it fell over the beach and into the ocean, taking them with it. He also realized he was soaked with salty-smelling sea water.
“Stern dragged you out of the ocean some time ago,” T’Parief explained, answering Jeffery’s unanswered question, “After Marsden administered CPR you vomited, began breathing and passed out. We were unsure as to whether you would come to again, and we definitely didn’t expect additional vomit. Stern and the others are trying to salvage what they can from the wreckage,”
“Oh.” Apparently, Stern and T’Parief had everything well in hand. Nothing for Jeffery to do but sit back, relax and enjoy the sunshine.
“Wait, where’s Yanick?” he demanded.
“She is resting comfortably,” T’Parief said calmly, but there was something in his voice that Jeffery couldn’t put his finger on, “She managed to stay with the cockpit section until it hit the water, then swam to shore,”
“Really? Good on her,”
“She is a remarkable human,” T’Parief commented. Jeffery noticed that although T’Parief appeared to be scanning wherever he could see from the treetop for whatever he was looking for, his gaze kept returning to his far right. Deciding to check up on Yanick, who was undoubtedly somewhere in that direction, Jeffery climbed to his feet and started moving.
“And after we split Fifebee and Sylvia, Fifebee was able to do her holographic pass- through-walls trick to help us figure out what some of the rooms were,” Yanick was saying, going on her chirpy, happy-go-Yanick voice, “And Valtiac figured out how to open the mechanical door locks, so we could pry the doors open instead of phasering them, which Anselia wouldn’t let us do anyway. All the good stuff is still locked up, but at least we could sleep in real beds, and eat real food, and shower once in a while! It was almost as bad as Survival Training, remember? When they’d dump you on a deserted planet for a week and expect you to survive? Of course, they were up in orbit with sensors tracking you, and all that. Heh, I remember this one guy stopped to take a ‘personal happy moment’ and they caught the whole thing with the ship’s visual sensors! He was SOOOO embarrassed! Not that he had reason to be, the mental health briefing actually said that was a good way to relieve stress and maintain a positive outlook.”
As Jeffery walked up the beach he’d found Yanick sitting in the shade of the trees, facing a small cove. A small pile of supplies scavenged from the runabout had been started, and the Matrian prisoner they’d rescued had been lain out in a shady spot. At first Jeffery thought that Yanick’s stream of chatter had been directed at her, then he saw that she was cradling somebody’s dark-haired head on her lap. (He was relieved to look further and see that the head was, in fact, still attached to its owner’s body.) He could see a faded spattering of Trill spots tracing down the temple and along the neck, which didn’t make any sense. There were no Trill on the Hazardous Team…
“Anyway, we don’t have any nightclubs or anything yet,” Yanick went on as she gently stroked the dark, mussed hair, “Not even any good music. But, y’know, it’s gotta be better than living up with the Qu’Eh, right?”
As he came closer, Jeffery realized that it was Jall’s head that Yanick was talking to. The tall, lanky officer was sprawled out on the beach, lying so completely motionless that Jeffery was certain that he was dead.
Yanick’s head turned to face him.
“He won’t wake up,” she said sadly, “We pulled him out of the water when we found you, but he won’t wake up!”
“Trish,” Jeffery said gently, unsure how to handle this, “I think…he may be…”
“Oh, no, he’s not dead,” Yanick almost giggled. She put one hand on Jall’s chest, “He’s breathing, and I can feel his heart beating.”
“Oh! Well…good on ‘im, then.”
“I’m scared the Qu’Eh did something to him,” Yanick went on, her voice again sounding sad, “They took him to their ship weeks ago. I don’t see any cuts, or marks, or any other sign that they…you know. But Marsden said the Qu’Eh were using some of that weird Matrian mind-machine stuff.”
Suddenly, the Matria prisoner sat bolt-upright and shouted.
“I DON”T KNOW WHERE HAVEN IS!!!!”
She looked around blankly for a moment, then flopped back to the sand.
“Has she been doing that a lot?” Jeffery asked.
“Still,” Jeffery motioned at Jall’s form, “Ye might want to ease back a bit. Ye don’t want a squished nose if he goes nutters on ye,”
“Um, right.” Yanick eased Jall’s head off her lap and tried to make him comfortable, but she didn’t leave his side. As she moved, Jeffery could see that her stomach was now very, very distended. In fact, if he didn’t know any better, he’d swear she was a good eight months pregnant.
“And how are ye?” Jeffery asked.
“Oh me? Fat as a cow,” she grumbled, “And I still don’t know why!”
“But yer feeling…OK?”
“For now,” Yanick said, “It hurts when I swell up more, but once it stops…growing…I feel ok.”
“Growing?” Jeffery squeaked.
“I already checked for space parasites,” Yanick assured him, “Or those funny Barney things some crew came across a few years back…the ones that grew in your chest and clawed their way out? Anyway, it’s none of that. Just…fluid build-up,”
Jeffery made a face.
“Oh come on, Simon! Aren’t we at a point yet where we can discuss our health without getting all icky?”
“Oh aye, aye,” Jeffery said unsteadily.
But he still kept glancing at Yanick’s belly.
While Jeffery and Yanick stood vigil over Jall and the Matrian, and while T’Parief served as lookout, the Hazardous Team was combing the shallows for anything useful they could recover from the runabout. They’d left their uniforms on the beach and were swimming through the warm, clear, salty water in their underwear.
“Man, this has GOT to be the best mission ever,” Simmons said, floating on his back, “How come we never trained for anything like this in the holodeck?”
“You’re supposed to be looking for stuff!” Stern reminded him, treading water, looking down and spotting something. He dove, closing his eyes against the salt and reaching out for whatever he’d found. Popping back up to the surface, he found it was just a metal support bracket. He chucked it back towards the beach, in the general direction of the ‘junk’ pile. Rengs dove under the waves, coming back up with a tricorder. He started swimming towards the ‘keep’ pile.
“He’s got a good point,” Marsden called from a few meters away, “We’ve spent hundreds of hours training for desert operations, training for urban operations, jungle anti- insurgery,”
“I think you mean ‘insurgency’,” Kreklor corrected him.
“We’ve trained for hostage situations, item retrievals and demolitions. But we’ve never, ever run a holo-simulation where we had to swim in a beautiful ocean looking for stuff!”
“If we did, we’d probably have more people signing up for security,” Simmons replied, “Maybe even some hot chicks in bikinis!”
“Yeah, that’s totally what this beach is missing,” Marsden agreed.
Stern couldn’t argue that point.
The others were so busy scanning the sandy sea floor that they didn’t even notice the fin. It was Simmons, in fact, who lolled one eye to the side to look out over the horizon and saw the dark, blade-like object sticking out of the water.
“Uh-buh…uh-buuuh!!!” he tried to point, only to lose his buoyancy and sputter.
“What’s that, Simmons?” Stern asked absently, “See an interesting cloud?”
“SH-SHAAARK!” Simmons cried, swimming frantically back to the beach.
The HT looked around frantically, spotting the fin.
Jeffery head the shouting immediately and jogged back to where T’Parief was, pardon the pun, hanging around.
“T’Parief! They’re in trouble!” he said frantically, “Do ye have a phaser? A harpoon? Anything?”
“They’re not in trouble,” T’Parief replied confidently.
As Jeffery watched the fin overtook Rengs, who abruptly disappeared under the surface.
“Bugger!” Jeffery gasped. He took two steps towards the water before T’Parief stopped him with a firm bark of command.
“If any of them had bothered to read the fauna report on Matria, they’d know that the Matrian equivalent of sharks avoid the equatorial waters due to their warm temperature.”
“That would be a slenun,” T’Parief went on, “It is sort of a cross between a dolphin and an eel. They are excellent in soup, however the Matrian government has outlawed slenun hunting due to their intelligence and playful nature.”
“But…” Jeffery said again. As he watched, Rengs was catapulted back out of the water, landing several meters away and sputtering. Jeffery caught a flash of a long, narrow snout and a snake-like neck before the slenun disappeared back under the water.
“It’s got me!” Simmons suddenly shouted, splashing around, “OH MY GOD! IT’S KILLING ME! IT’S….it’s… “ he trailed off.
“I think it’s humping my leg,” he frowned.
By the time the HT had returned to shore, Jeffery and T’Parief were both laughing hysterically. A whole pod of the animals had turned up and had spent nearly half an hour swimming around the terrified humanoids, pushing them through the water, sending them flying through the air and subjecting them to a variety of friendly brushings. It had taken nearly fifteen minutes for the HT to fully realize that the animals were friendly, and another fifteen for the slenuns to grow tired of them and let them swim to shore.
“You could have said something!” Simmons shouted angrily.
“I did,” T’Parief chuckled, “In the planetary mission profile I sent you two months ago.”
Dar’ugal shook his body, trying to shake the water out of his fur and succeeding only in turning himself into a damp puff-ball. Jeffery shielded his face as water flew in all directions.
“Yeah, next time we’re throwing YOU in to play with them!” Stern nodded.
“I don’t suppose anybody thought to pack some margaritas?” Marsden wondered, looking past T’Parief at the clear, blue sky.
“Well, if I’d know we were going to end up stranded on a deserted paradise,” Stern shrugged, “I would have added them to the equipment list.”
By the time night fell, the Hazardous Team had completed their sweep of the beach, Jeffery had started a pretty good fire and the Matrian prisoner, Bhetti, had fully regained consciousness. She’d been captured during the Qu’Eh sweep of the tunnels under Matronus and taken to the ‘Quality Re-evaluation Center’ (prison). She’d been selected for special interrogation on P’tarek’s ship not because she actually knew anything about Haven, but because a Qu’Eh spy device in her cell block had overheard her talking about the Heavenly Hash ice-cream recipe that had been added to the replicator database when Ambassador Owens had come to the planet two years ago.
“I tried to tell them that they were making a mistake, but they wouldn’t listen to me,” she’d explained to Jeffery and T’Parief, “I helped the Rebellion with supplies! You know, smuggling down food and replicator power packs…I don’t know anything about Haven!”
In other words, although T’Parief and his team didn’t regret rescuing her, (it was in the job description after all) they’d quickly realized that she wouldn’t be of much help in the current situation.
As the stars appeared in the sky and as two of Matria Prime’s moons started to peek over the horizon, they gathered around Jeffery’s campfire and started picking through the equipment they’d salvaged from the ship.
“Well, we’ve still got the SR-shield generator,” Jeffery mused, holding the somewhat battered component in one hand, “Ah dunno if it’s waterproof or nae, but we really don’t have any way of testing it, do we?”
“Not unless we find a tricorder that still works,” Rengs said, tapping angrily at his. Two more lay discarded by his feet. “These ones turn on, but I’m not picking up much of anything on them!”
“The phasers work,” Jeffery said, “Ah used mine to start the fire.”
“Comm-badges?” Stern asked.
“We dunno. Do ye want to risk sending a signal the Qu’Eh could track?”
They all exchanged uneasy looks.
“How else are we going to call for rescue?” Jeffery asked.
“Who needs to be rescued?” Simmons laughed, “Let’s get some moonshine going, maybe build a barbeque pit, and we’re set!”
“Oops, somebody move Jall’s feet, his boot is starting to smoke!” Marsden yelped. Yanick reached over and pulled the still-unconscious officer’s legs away from the fire. (She’d moved him close to begin with, to keep him warm despite the tropical night air.)
“Nuuuggggnnnn….” Jall grunted, turning a little.
“I didn’t know he had Trill spots,” Rengs said, nodding in Jall’s direction.
“He goes into Sickbay every month or so to have them removed,” Yanick said absently, “I guess he’s overdue.”
T’Parief’s red eyes gleamed in the firelight, so Jeffery knew the instant the reptile starting staring in his direction. His eyes flickered down the beach. Getting the message, Jeffery stood and casually walked a few paces away from the fire.
“What’s up, big guy?” Jeffery asked quietly.
“We do not know what the Qu’Eh did to Jall,” T’Parief said without preamble, “We know they were experimenting with Matrian SID technology, which had the ability to alter the personalities of any beings within their influence,”
“Aye, but the effects stopped as soon as the gizmo was turned off,” Jeffery said.
“In the Matrian version, yes. Who is to say the Qu’Eh version is the same?”
“It innae possible,” Jeffery shook his head, “The SIDs used a spatial interphase to let interspace influence into our space-time. They used the effects of interspace on the humanoid nervous system to change behaviour. When the interspace influence fades…” Jeffery trailed off as an angry rattle built in T’Parief’s throat.
“I am not interested in techno-babble,” T’Parief grumbled, “And again, you are describing the Matrian device. We do not know how the Qu’Eh version worked.”
“OK, fine. Then what’s the deal?”
“When Jall regains consciousness, he may try to take command of the situation,” T’Parief explained. “He outranks us both,”
“He knows nothing of the situation,”
“Neither does Chris half the time, but he manages,”
“He has been a prisoner of war for nearly a month,” T’Parief went on, “He cannot take command until he’s been given a full examination,”
“Who is in command, then?” Jeffery asked sharply.
“I am,” T’Parief said, in a tone that left no room for discussion.
“And whot’s yer plan?”
“My plan,” T’Parief said, “is to wait fourty-eight hours to allow the Qu’Eh reaction to our very successful mission to die down. We will explore the area and attempt to either locate the nearest inhabited settlement or a means of contacting the Rebellion.”
“Sounds good,” Jeffery started to turn back towards the fire, but T’Parief stopped him.
“One last thing,” the reptile said, “It is no secret that you have been very vocal about questioning the Captain’s plans in situations such as this. I am not as understanding as he is. Defy me, and I will render you unconscious in the most painful manner painful,”
He game Jeffery a small grin.
“Just so there are no…misunderstandings.”
When they returned to the campfire, Jall was still unconscious, but had begun muttering softly.
“I think he’s going to be OK,” Yanick said, smiling at the HT.
“Yeah, he is,” Simmons said, “But what about y-URP!”
Rengs had jammed an elbow in his kidney.
“I’M FINE!” Yanick shrieked, her mood switching sides faster than a bisexual at a fashion show.
“Next time, listen to me!” Rengs whispered, “I’ve been through this before!” His wife and son were safe and sound in Haven. Meris had even found a chamber near the Transit Hub that was suitable for teaching classes to the small group of children that Silverado crewmen had brought aboard.
“I wish we had marshmallows,” Stern sighed, drinking some of the fresh water they’d salvaged from the runabout, “And hookers. And something cold to drink,”
“Tomorrow we will begin exploring,” T’Parief said, “Our first priority will be fresh water, followed by edible plants and animals. We will go from there.”
“At least it’s warm out,” Jeffery said, lying down on one side and preparing to sleep, “It’s bad enough ye had to give me CPR. A night of cuddlin’ together for warmth would just be too much,”
“It’s only gay if you look into each other’s eyes!” Simmons said defensively.
“On that note, I’m turning in,” Stern said, rolling over, “Kreklor, you’ve got first watch. I’ll relieve you in two hours,”
The Klingon grunted, then turned away from the fire, his eyes scanning the dark night.
Commander San Jall felt like somebody had stirred his brains with an egg-mixer. He was aware that he was lying flat on his back and that he was outside. But he was also aware that the fresh air tasted yellow on his tongue and that the crashing surf sounded like strawberries. Market faced the bright centipede automobile as well, which led him to shake his head gently and wonder just what the hell the Qu’Eh had done to his brain. Memories were coming back slowly; the Qu’Eh ship, filling out reams of paperwork, and being led into an interrogation chamber.
Oh. He was recovering from Qu’Eh interrogation drugs. Or neural scramblers. No, wait. Dishes walked down the brick lined with happy cake. Hmm. OK, that was a bit more coherent than the bit with the centipede anyway. Whatever they’d done to him seemed to be fading up. Off. Out? Whatevever.
Groaning, he pulled himself into a sitting position and tried to blink the sunlight out of his eyes.
“Jall,” somebody’s voice said, soft yet insistent, “Don’t…move…”
Was that Supervisor Neum?
“And be quiet!”
As his vision cleared, he found himself sitting near the burnt-out remnants of a campfire. Jall, Jeffery, T’Parief and the Hazardous Team were gathered around him. He’d been rescued!
Wait. Was there something sharp poking his mid-back, or was that more brain scrambulation?
As his vision cleared even further, he realized that the Silverado crewmen were all on their knees, their hands on their heads. Behind them stood dozens of spear-wielding Matrians, clad in loincloths and adorned with war-paint.
“Thanks for the rescue, guys,” he muttered.
As Jall rose carefully to his feet, hands on his head, Stern cursed himself again for current situation. He couldn’t fully blame himself. He’d been distracted after all…
“One bottle of beer on the wall, one bottle of beer,” he’d been singing almost under his breath, his back to the fire to preserve his night vision. Even though it was nearly 0400, the island was still alive with sounds. The swell of the surf as the tide ebbed, the chirping of some sort of insect from deep in the trees, even the occasional grumble of what was probably a larger land animal, likely keeping a distance due to the fire. Still, Stern kept his eyes open and his phaser ready, occasionally circling the campsite to make sure nothing was sneaking up on them.
“I wish we really had that much beer,” somebody had mumbled quietly.
“You and me both, buddy,” Stern had replied, not particularly caring who it was. There was a sudden grumbling sound, then the mystery speaker groaned slightly.
OK, that had settled it. It was Yanick.
“We still have a few pieces of the med-kit,” Stern had offered, “The tricorders won’t work, but-“
“Ohh, back off. It hasn’t gotten any worse,”
“Hey, just trying to help!”
Unexpectedly, Yanick had burst into quiet tears. Not quite knowing what to do, Stern stood there like a deer in the headlights. The only other time he’d been around a crying woman was during some of the kinkier role-playing he’d gotten involved in, and those tears had been 100% for show.
“Sit down and hug me!” Yanick whispered harshly, “Ohh, you security types are all the same! You don’t know how to handle a woman unless she comes with an instruction manual!”
“Some of them come with manuals?” he asked as he crouched down and gave her a tentative side-hug.
As suddenly as they’d started, the tears were gone; replaced with giggles.
“You boys,” Yanick had chuckled, “You’d think four years of working with you would give Pari some of your sense of humour!”
“Yeah, speaking of him, I’m going to stop hugging you now,”
Stern had stood and turned to resume his patrol…only to find himself facing a row of sparking lights. Eyes, reflecting the fire. He reached for his phaser, only to find the holster empty.
Now, a couple hours later, their captors seemed ready to move them out.
“Negithan ornimi,” an unusually muscular male Matrian demanded, pointing up the beach.
“We’re going thataway?” Stern asked. He received a sharp jab in response.
“Definitely that way,” he muttered.
“Don’t provoke them,” Jeffery said quietly.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Stern muttered back, “The HT has had tons of experience with primitives. We got the Bronze Age of Deloria II, remember?”
“How could we forget?” Simmons said, “It’s the only time we’ve ever been offered our own love-slaves!”
“Silence,” T’Parief said, softly but firmly. His hands had been bound behind his back, and their captors had no fewer than eight men and woman watching him carefully.
“Why? They don’t seem to mind, as long as we’re quiet,” Simmons said.
“We need them to talk so the Universal Translator can get a lock on their language,” Rengs explained, “Whatever language they speak, the Matrians didn’t give us the translation key when they joined the Federation,”
“Bhetti, any inklings?” Jeffery asked their Matrian rescuee.
“No, Lt Commander,” Bhetti replied, looking nervously at a stone spear tip a foot from her head, “I’ve never heard anything about people living in jungles or running around in loincloths,”
“You’ve missed out on some great movies, then” Marsden advised her.
They followed the beach for just under a kilometer before turning onto a path and moving into the forest. It was more jungle than forest, Jeffery decided. The trees just seemed to get taller and taller, the underbrush was getting thicker and he was pretty sure he could see vines dangling further ahead. The Matrians didn’t seem overly concerned about their situation; they almost seemed bored as they led the HT deeper into the jungle. The Starfleet members, by contrast, were discreetly looking every possible direction, trying to spot hostile animals, venomous plants, any of the hundreds of interesting ways to die that they’d read about in the Starfleet Field Survival Guide - Jungle Edition. The Matrians themselves were a near-even split between men and women, something that immediately struck Jeffery as being odd. They all seemed to be in excellent physical condition; Jeffery hadn’t seen so many six-packs since Unbalanced Equations had switched from canned and bottled beer to kegs. (About two weeks after Silverado had launched.) Their hair was long but clean and seemed to be tied back with a variety of coloured straps. Leather maybe, or plant material. They all wore narrow loincloths in front and back, which seemed to be made out of animal hide. The women wore what almost looked like animal-hide halter-tops. Jeffery wished they would have put in the extra effort for decent animal-hide bikinis, but he had to admit the view still wasn’t bad. Some wore jewellery, including the big male that seemed to be in charge. They’d all painted their faces with a variety of colours, and Jeffery again couldn’t help but notice that the guy in charge seemed to have the most elaborate face-paintings.
Jall, walking right behind Jeffery, had noticed about half of this. His brain was still pretty scrambled after all. But he did have one piece of insight that Jeffery hadn’t.
“I know I haven’t had as much experience with the Matrians as the rest of you,” he said quietly, “But isn’t it sort of strange that a tribe of primitive Matrians would have a man in charge?”
Jeffery started. T’Parief simply nodded agreement.
“Unless he’s only in charge of the raiding party,” Kreklor suggested. He’d also been shackled
“Even so,” Jall said. Something else was bothering him about these aliens. But what was it?
“Lt. Cmdr Stern” T’Parief said carefully, “Did your report on Deloria II not state that the…inhabitants…had a particular reaction to Kreklor and Dar’ugal?” In other words, didn’t the primitive ancient Delori panic when they saw that two of your team were alien?
Realization dawned on Stern’s face.
“Hey, yeah!” he said. “They thought they were gods! Or one god, one demon.”
“These guys don’t look like they’re about to worship us,” Kreklor said, “Or consider us demons,”
“How can we tell? They haven’t said anything yet!” Stern wondered.
“And why aren’t they saying anything, anyway?” Jall demanded.
“Thoreng abbath,” the guard behind him said almost casually before bopping him on the top of his head with his spear.
“Owww. Hey, don’t stir the porridge! It’s already well-mixed!”
“Okay, shutting up now!” Jall raised his hands in surrender.
They walked for nearly an hour before reaching the village. The ground, which had risen fairly steadily since they’d left the beach, now dropped down into a sort of basin. The trees towered above them, their canopies blocking the sky completely but letting a pleasant amount of light filter down to the ground. They reached a cliff wall, a sheer stone slab towering higher than even the trees. They followed this for a short time before the sound of crashing water could be heard, even felt beneath the soles of their feet.
“I hope this isn’t the part where they hold us underwater and decide that whoever drowned was innocent and whoever survived was a witch,” Marsden whimpered.
“Me too,” Simmons agreed.
“We’ve done nothing to them, shown no hostility,” Stern said, “We’re not here to hurt them, they’ve got no reason to hurt us!”
“Well, we did crash an alien runabout into one of their mountains. Who knows how they’re going to respond to that!” Jeffery pointed out.
“I was trying not to think about that part, actually,”
The foliage ahead of them abruptly cleared, revealing the Matrian village.
“Whoah…” Jall muttered, “Somebody needs a new decorator.”
Jeffery didn’t agree. The Matrian village had been built around a small lake at the base of a roaring, tumbling waterfall. He couldn’t imagine himself sleeping through that racket, but maybe the Matrians had gotten used to it. The pool itself emptied into a large stream (or small river) that wandered off into the jungle, tumbling through rounded, water-eroded rocks before disappearing into the foliage. The village itself was made up of hexagonal huts, each one elevated above the ground, some perched on broad tree branches, some clinging to the rock wall near the falls and others hanging by heavy, braided vines from even higher branches. A network of walkways connected many of the structures, and aside from a single wooden stairway circling a thick tree trunk, the only way up or down seemed to be a collection of vine-rope ladders.
The rest of the HT noticed all of this as well, of course, but it was Jeffery’s engineering mind that saw even deeper. He noticed immediately the perfect, clean cuts made on the bamboo-like wood that had been used to build the huts and walkways. He saw as well that the angles where the floors met the walls were as close to ninety degrees as you could get, and that the hexagonal shape of the huts was likewise close to perfect. He saw that instead of small windows, many sections of the light, bamboo-weave walls slid back to open the hut to the fresh air. Through many of these openings, he saw rolled animal hide tucked up where the wall met the ceiling, no doubt ready to be unrolled if extra insulation was needed. He also saw several small, rock-lined channels had been dug into the ground, positioned to drain rainwater away from the village. The hut roofs were peaked, and had been coated with some sort of thick, black gunk. Pitch? Whatever it was, Jeffery was willing to bet that it was water-repellent.
In other words, these people might be absolutely primitive by almost any standards, but they weren’t stupid savages. Not by a long stretch.
The Starfleeters were pushed into position near the center of the village, right in front of a large, elaborate-looking chair. No doubt, so somebody could pass judgement on them.
Jeffery casually moved over towards T’Parief, his eyes not leaving the ring of spears still pointed in their direction.
“Whoever these people are, they aren’t stupid,” he said quietly.
“Whot Ah mean is,” Jeffery considered, searching for the words, “This is the most advanced primitive village Ah’ve ever heard of,”
“You are hardly an anthropologist,” T’Parief replied.
The alpha male that had led their capture had disappeared, only to return with what had to be the alpha female. She was spectacular. There was no other way to put it. Not even thirty, she’d immediately dispelled Stern’s fear that they were going to have to deal with a wizened old bat. Her figure was divine, curved in all the right places. She easily cleared 185 centimeters, several inches taller than the alpha male. She wore an elaborate headdress, decorated with things that Jeffery couldn’t identify…probably the local analogue of peacock feathers or something. Her lips were a perfect bow, and when she spoke, her voice danced around Jeffery’s ears like music.
Of course, they couldn’t understand a word she said.
“So much for a male-dominated Matrian society,” Stern observed, “Yes!”
Frowning, the woman turned to the male and spoke again. He shrugged, gestured to the prisoners, then said something back.
Nodding, the woman turned her attention back to them, then spoke again. Her words were different, as were their rhythm. Another language?”
Still, the HT’s Universal Translators were silent.
She turned back to the male, and they went back into a heated discussion.
“This society may not be male dominated,” Jall said, “But it still looks a lot more co- operative than I’d expect,”
“We hardly know anything about the Old Matrians,” Yanick said. She’d spent a good deal of time liaisoning with them, after all. “We don’t have a clue how their primitive societies would have worked. And I’ve never heard any of the Matrians mention anything like this, thanks for asking!”
“Sorry Trish,” Jall said, giving her a grin, “Feel free to add whatever you like,”
“I will, thank you!” she immediately started digging into her pocket, “Why don’t you try this?”
“What is it?” Jall asked.
“It’s a comm-badge from Haven,” Yanick said, handing him a small, disk-shaped object with six curved triangular indentations around the edge, “It’s from before the Gender War, maybe it has their language programmed in,”
Jall didn’t bother asking Yanick why she hadn’t suggested this sooner; they hadn’t asked. Which had been her whole point.
Jall held the badge up, trying to find the ‘on’ switch.
“OKONOT TARGA!” one of the Matrians shouted, pointing at Jall.
Suddenly the spears were at the Hazardous Team’s throats, and the mild curiosity the alpha woman had regarded them with had been replaced by hostility, mixed with just a bit of fear.
“Well, we still don’t know who they are,” Jeffery gulped, “But now they think they know who we are…and Ah donnae think they like us!”
T’Parief moved so fast that he was finished before anybody had even realized he’d started.
With a flex of his arms, he snapped the vines tying his wrists together. His legs fired like springboards as he leapt directly at the alpha male. One arm circled around the thinner humanoid, trapping his arms at his sides. The other hand came down across the man’s forehead. T’Parief twisted so they were facing the alpha female and the message he sent her was clear: One move and I can snap his neck.
She held up one hand and barked a work of command. The tribesmen and women surrounding the HT didn’t lower their spears, but they didn’t poke anybody open with them either.
“Mexican standoff,” Stern muttered, “Jall, now would be a good time with that translator.
“I’m working on it! I don’t even know if it’s actually off!”
“Well we can’t exactly call technical support, now can we?”
“We worked in technical support for three days,” Marsden said helpfully, “We should be able to do it ourselves!”
As they bickered, T’Parief and the alpha female stared right into each other’s eyes, each taking the measure of the other. In her eyes he saw concern and hostility, but he also so determination. There was something else too…the curiosity was back. And he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that it wasn’t them that she was afraid of.
She, on the other hand, saw a lizard-being that looked like a demon out of hell. Of course, most people saw that in T’Parief. But she also saw restraint. And something else too…suspicion? She wasn’t sure.
“Try squeezing the little dome bit on top,” Yanick was advising Jall.
“I already tried that,” Jall said, “Nothing happened.”
“Are you sure? That’s how I turned it on before,”
“Maybe it’s just not programmed for Federation Standard?” Marsden suggested.
“Hey, just because I’m blond doesn’t mean I can’t use a translator!” Yanick snapped, “I programmed it weeks ago!”
The badge beeped softly.
“Oh. You had to hold the button down for a few seconds,” Jall said calmly.
“I told you that!”
“Oh no you didn’t!”
“I told you right at the very beginning!”
“No you just said to press it! You didn’t say anything about holding it down!”
“I’m pretty sure he’s right,” Marsden chimed in.
“SHUT UP!” Yanick snapped, “Nobody asked you”
“Why didn’t you just load our translators with all the Matrian languages instead?” Marsden wondered.
“Because these ones actually worked in the interference field in Haven!”
“Excuse us,” T’Parief grumbled, annoyed, “We’re in the middle of a stand-off here. Could you continue your technical discussion later, so we may continue?”
“Lower you weapons,” the alpha woman said abruptly, her words now being translated, “Somehow, I doubt these ones are much of a threat to us,”
Uneasily, her people obeyed. T’Parief immediately released the male.
“We could be,” he said to her, “If we so chose,”
“You are not of Matria,” the male said, “Where are you from?”
“We’re from…oh boy, how do we explain this?” Jall groaned.
“You are from another planet?” the woman asked.
“Well, yeah,” Jall started, surprised she even knew the word, “Not all from the same ones, obviously.”
“Any why are you here?”
“The Matrian government invited us here,” Jeffery said, deciding to ignore the primitive appearance of the natives and just explain in plain language, “They’ve had some…problems, and were interested in joining our, uh, planetary alliance,”
“Until another group of aliens invaded and all hell broke loose!” Simmons added helpfully.
“I see,” the woman said slowly, “But you are not with the Council of Mistresses?” She pointed at the Matrian comm-badge.
“What?” Jall frowned, then his eyes widened in realization, “Oh! No, we just took this thing from an Old Matrian base. It’s a long story.”
The woman and the male exchanged a meaningful look. He nodded, then she turned back to T’Parief.
“Then tell me,” this time her voice was so emotional it was almost choked, “Are the Gender Wars over?”
The silence was so complete you could have heard a pin drop on the mossy jungle floor. Even the wildlife seemed to have paused to hear the answer.
“The Gender Wars ended over a century ago,” it was Bhetti that spoke, moving forward in the group, “Our people fell into a…a Dark Age. It ended two years ago. Now we’re…we were rebuilding.”
“You are Matrian,” the male said.
“I’m just a supply clerk,” Bhetti admitted, “But yeah. These people rescued me from the Qu’Eh.”
The alphas were still intent on the HT, but the rest of the villagers were whispering among themselves.
“Who won the war?” the female asked.
Jeffery and T’Parief exchanged a look. Jall groaned inwardly. Bhetti looked thoughtful for a moment.
“Nobody,” she finally said.
“Then who rules Matria?”
“An elected council. Led by an elected King and Queen,”
“And the genders are balanced?”
“Well, it’ll be a generation or two before the kinks are worked out, but mostly,”
Jeffery and Jall moved closer to T’Parief as the conversation continued.
“They don’t seem all that worried about the Qu’Eh, do they?”
“If they are what I suspect they are, the Qu’Eh would be far down on their list of priorities.” T’Parief muttered.
“I am Leader Hylin,” the alpha female said, apparently satisfied with Bhetti’s answers, “This is my partner, Leader Drep,” she gestured at the alpha male. “The news you have brought is good; it is cause for celebration! And so we probably won’t kill you,”
“Probably?” Jeffery started.
“We value our privacy,” Hylin said simply, “And our secrecy. You have invaded one, and threaten the other. What this means for us and for you remains to be seen.”
“Know this,” Drep spoke up, “If the Gender Wars hadn’t ended, you would be dead already,”
“Charmin’,” Jeffery squeaked.
The away team was led away from the group of villagers towards the single stairway leading up into the tree village.
“Normally,” their head guard said, “we would have left you in the dirt until we killed you. But since you may be with us a while longer, we can lock you up instead,”
“Thank you so much,”
“And we wouldn’t think of forcing a woman with child to try climbing a ladder,” he added.
Everybody took a breath and waited for Yanick’s retort. Surprisingly, she spoke very calmly.
“I’m not pregnant. I’m just having a…a medical condition. Please don’t ask about it any further,”
“We get shit, but the evil kidnapping aliens get Miss Manners?” Jeffery wondered.
“We are not threatening to kill her,” T’Parief replied.
They climbed the stairway obediently enough. Jeffery noted that the steps were interwoven with angular support brackets. Again, it seemed oddly sophisticated for a group of savages.
They were taken to one of the highest huts in the village. The hut was perched just far enough away from the pond that they couldn’t jump into the water, and just high enough that the fall would cause a broken ankle or leg, but probably not death. For most of the HT, anyway, T’Parief and Kreklor could probably have made the jump. On the other hand, as the pond and it’s surrounding shores were the center of the village, they’d find themselves surrounded in seconds.
The guard pointed out a pile of animal hides that could be used as blankets for the cot- like beds that lined the walls.
“We will bring you food later,” he said. He slid the weaved-bamboo-stuff door shut. T’Parief gestured at Jall, who immediately switched off the Universal Translator.
“I think I’ve seen a movie about this sort of thing once,” Simmons said immediately, “One of us has to seduce the pretty alien leader, then we trick her into making us one of her people just in time to betray them horribly in the end, right?”
“No,” Jall, T’Parief and Jeffery said at once.
“Well, you could probably try seducing that Drep guy,” Simmons said to Jall, trying to be accommodating, “Unless they like, chop off your hand as punishment for that kind of thing,”
Jall just glared at him.
“If anybody has to do some seducing, it’ll be me,” Stern said confidently.
“Men,” Yanick almost spat, “Always thinking you can get what you want with sex!”
“Sex IS what we want,”
“Silence, all of you,” T’Parief said sharply. He was sitting near one of the openings/windows, looking out at the waterfall. Below them, Drep and Hylin were leading their people in a meeting, or group discussion of some kind. It wasn’t quite Robert’s Rules of Order, not the overly-structured but similar pattern used by the Matrian government, but it was still very, very civilized.
“The time for battle has passed,” he said, “For the moment.”
Dar’ugal made several signs, some of which were obviously explosions or impacts.
“Yeah, I agree with Darg,” Marsden said, “T’Parief claws the door open, we smack down the guards, get our phasers and get the smurf out of here,”
“Pay attention when I speak,” T’Parief grumbled angrily, “The time for battle has passed.”
“All those anger-management classes Stafford made you sit through are finally paying off, huh,” Jall asked patting the lizard on the back. T’Parief swatted him away.
“Just because I enjoy ripping an enemy to bloody shreds and feasting on his entrails doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the need for information-gathering. And in case your interrogation-riddled brain has forgotten, the Matrians are our allies. Including these ones. Killing them would be dishonourable.”
Yanick had lain back on one of the beds, propping up her shoulders and head with a pile of hid blankets. The beds were almost like hammocks, simple animal hides suspended using straps, but these were tied tightly enough to the wooden frames that they were more like cots than hammocks. Something had happened right there, something that just made her feel…good. Not in the euphoric, ‘OMG THIS IS AWSOME’ kind of way, but in a deeper, more comfortable contentment.
Part of it was that the success of their mission was finally sinking in. Their colleagues aboard Silverado had been freed and Jall had been rescued from the Qu’Eh. But what had really driven it home was the way T’Parief had brushed Jall and his unwelcome comment aside. It had been done not with a sense of distaste or anger, but with a sense of familiarity. The closest analogue she could think of was during her childhood, when her mother had complained frequently about a spider that had made its home in her kitchen window. Every year, Samantha Yanick had complained about the pesky bug and the webs it would weave in the corners. Yet she’d never tried to kill it, and every spring she’d announce to Trish that ‘My spider is back!’ in that same combination of annoyance and pleasure that T’Parief’s absent dismissal of Jall seemed to contain.
After over a month of separation, their group was coming back together again. As she dozed off, Yanick dreamt that they were all back aboard Silverado, ready to set off for new adventures in the unknown.
As Yanick and Bhetti slept, T’Parief and Jeffery set the HT to observe different parts of the village from their vantage point. The two of them, along with Jall, were looking out at the pond and the waterfall. The sound of crashing water drowned out the voices of the Matrians below, but they could see easily that the meeting had ended and that preparations were being made for a very large meal, possibly even a feast.
“Ye’ve been very co-operative,” Jeffery commented to Jall, looking sideways at him.
“I have no idea what you mean, carrot-top,” Jall quipped.
“Ah mean, ye haven’t tried to take command back of the situation,”
“Well, after that Qu’Eh thing, I really don’t mind a bit of a vacation,” Jall shrugged. He didn’t want to admit that Jeffery and T’Parief were 100% right, he had no authority until he’d been subjected to a thorough examination following his time as a captive.
“Simmons may be right,” T’Parief mused, ignoring their conversation, “Jeffery, you may have to seduce one of the females.”
“Nay. Let Stern do it,”
“Stern would mate with her, roll over and fall asleep before he could gather any useful information,” T’Parief said, “Our priority is to find out who these people are and how we can get back to Haven,”
“They’re jungle-people,” Jall shrugged, “Not exactly the norm on most developed planets, but not unheard of.” He stretched out on the nearest bed. “Personally, I think they have a future in the vacation industry. Except for the racket from that damned waterfall.”
“So ye don’t think it’s strange that they’re not bothered by the aliens in our group?” Jeffery asked sceptically, “Or the fact that we have a shiny little badge that let’s as all speak the same language?”
“They tried to kill us when they saw it,” T’Parief grumbled, “They recognized it,”
“You heard her,” Jall shrugged, “They’ve had people stumble on their little village before. They interrogated ‘em before they killed ‘em. It’s not unheard of for tribes like this to be aware of advanced technology or alien species.”
“True,” T’Parief agreed, “But why kidnap us to begin with? We could wander through the jungle for weeks without finding this village. And why were they so concerned about the Gender Wars?”
“The wars devastated whole cities,” Jeffery mused, “Could be a few miles from here there’s a big radioactive crater where their neighbours used to live,”
The smell of cooking meats and vegetables was starting to waft up to their level of the village. Jall was frowning now too.
“For the moment, I suggest we watch, listen and learn,” Jall said, “As my fifth-grade teacher used to say,”
“I agree,” T’Parief nodded, “There will be a time to strike. But it is not now,”
“Jeffery, why don’t you take a snooze?” Jall suggested, “Spell us off in a couple of hours?”
Jeffery looked suspiciously at the two of them, but gave no argument.
As soon as they were alone, Jall turned to T’Parief.
“You’re hiding something, Lizard-man,” he said quietly.
“You are imagining things,” T’Parief said sharply, “Perhaps the yellow centipedes are still stirring the table orange?”
“Hey, who told you about that?”
“You were speaking in your sleep before you regained consciousness,”
“I’m fine,” Jall shook his head, “And, like it or not, I know you well enough to know that there’s more going on in your head than you sometimes want to admit!”
“I am a predator,” T’Parief replied, looking down at the Matrians. They were now laying out their evening meal, an atmosphere of good cheer permeating the group. “Part of being a predator is the kill. But before the kill, one must stalk the prey,”
“That’s a great way to tell me absolutely nothing,” Jall said flatly, “Spit it out,”
T’Parief looked around carefully, then considered.
“All I have is a suspicion,” he whispered, “If I am correct, than these people are far more dangerous than they look. And more important to our current situation than you’d expect,”
“Um, OK. Then why…”
“And if they find out we suspect what they are, we will be very, very dead,”
“And what are they?”
T’Parief told him. By the time he’d finished, Jall was gaping at him.
“How did you-“
“Say nothing more. Think nothing more. Do nothing, for now. I have a plan.” T’Parief said quietly, “We will speak with Jeffery later regarding the part he has to play, but of this conversation, speak to nobody,”
“I must have been away for a long time,” Jall mused, looking amazed, “The lizard had time to go and get smart!”
A few hours later, with the soft jungle-floor light just beginning to dim, Stern spoke up from his vantage point at one corner of the hut.
“Somebody’s coming up here with a pile of food,” he said, “And she’s hot!”
“Oh thank ye, merciful God,” Jeffery breathed.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” Bhetti gulped.
“Me neither,” Jeffery agreed.
“You’ll do fine,” Jall said, patting him on the shoulder.
“Oh, like ye’d know,”
The guard slid the door open and stepped in. Jall reactivated the translator.
“Your meal has arrived,” he said calmly, “Oh, and we’ve decided to put off deciding whether or not to kill you until tomorrow night. Tonight is for celebrating, and killing people tends to kill the mood,”
“I think the mood’s just fine,” Bhetti said awkwardly, smiling at the guard and trying to look sexy.
A Matrian woman with a tray of food stepped around the guard, walked into the hut and lay the tray down on the floor.
“Thank ye so much,” Jeffery said, looking right into her eyes, “We really appreciate your hospitality,”
“You’re welcome,” the woman said.
“And…um…your exquisite beauty,”
She gave him an odd look.
“You, uh, must work out,” Bhetti was saying to the guard, “You look very fit. After all, that loin-cloth doesn’t really hide much of anything. Um, I mean, it hides what it’s supposed to hide, but-“
“Ah’d love the chance to get to know ye a bit better,” Jeffery said to the serving girl, “Any chance that could happen?”
“This is pretty sad,” Jall muttered to T’Parief.
“Not likely,” the serving girl said to Jeffery, standing and making her exit.
“Yes,” T’Parief agreed sadly, “These are indeed the most pathetic attempts at seduction I have ever seen,”
“So much for Plan A,” Jall sighed.
“You’re…not my type,” the guard said to Bhetti, with a just a bit of hesitation in his voice. Jall’s ears perked right up.
“Then again…” he murmured. Then, louder, “Hey buddy, leave the door open. I’d love to hear more about live in this neat little village you guys have,”
The guard didn’t respond, but he didn’t close the door either when he stepped out. Jall perched casually on the cot nearest the door and started chatting.
“Ye’ve GOT to be kidding me,” Jeffery said, a look of dismay on his face, “Bhetti and I both get shot down, and this…this…”
“Do not speak of it,” T’Parief said, his throat rattling like a fourty year-old engine.
The food was quite good, decently prepared and seasoned with more than a few interesting spices that probably came from sources that nobody on the away team wanted to consider too carefully. As night fell, the sounds of the jungle outside shifted as the daytime creatures retreated to their dens and the nocturnal ones came out. Jall was doing an excellent job of keeping the guard distracted as T’Parief deftly slipped out of the hut.
He didn’t jump, nor did he try sneaking past the guard at the main door. Instead, he leaned casually against the window frame, then slid around it, using his claws to hang from the outer wall of the hut. To anybody looking from the outside, they would have seen his silhouette disappear from the window, but it should have looked like he’d simply moved off to one side. He’d shed his uniform and wore only a pair of undershorts, relying on his natural colouring to provide camouflage. The night air, warm and humid, felt good on his scaled hide. Careful not to move too quickly, he slid along the side of the hut, then slid down, hugging one of the supports that attached the hut floor to the nearby tree. He located one of the walkways that connected their hut to its closest neighbour, then carefully crossed it, hanging from beneath by all four limbs. He hoped that the Matrians would be used to having the local fauna skittering around their village and wouldn’t notice the nearly undetectable sound of his claws digging for purchase.
Finally, he reached the edge of the village and carefully slid down a thick tree to the ground. The Matrians were still celebrating, dancing to a rhythmic beat and waving flaming torches in the air. Jeffery had wanted him to wait until the Matrians were asleep before making his move, but T’Parief’s tactical training knew better.
“It takes, on average, twenty-three minutes for the average humanoid eye to fully adjust to low-light vision,” T’Parief had pointed out, “If the Matrians are using torches and fires now, they will see nothing when they look into the jungle. Later, after their party is over, the fires are out and their night watch is on guard, their eyes will have time to adapt to the low light and I will be more easily spotted,”
So far, his plan had paid off. Even as he approached the edge of the pond, hugging the cliff wall, the Matrians showed no sign that they could distinguish him from the clumps of mosses and lichens that grew on the damp rock. As he approached the water’s edge, he found what he’d spotted from the hut: a smooth ledge of rock leading to the waterfall. A ledge that was just a bit too smooth to be natural.
He’d been wondering why the Matrians had built their village around the waterfall, given the noise the thing generated. He personally would have built it a ways down the stream, ensuring access to fresh water while avoiding the noise. Also, if these Matrians wanted to remain hidden, building their village next to a natural wonder that was probably visible from the air seemed like a poor idea.
Unless they needed to be near it.
This thought had drawn his attention to the too-perfect ledge. The ledge that looked more like a narrow stone walkway.
T’Parief crept closer to the waterfall, and was utterly unsurprised to find a cave directly behind it. He was equally unsurprised to find that the stone floor of the cave had been smoothened flat. And that that the stone floor sloped down to the waterfall, so that any water tossed into the cave would run out.
He was also not surprised to find a broad door built into the back wall of the cave, complete with softly glowing light.
“He’s behind the waterfall,” Jeffery said quietly. He and the HT had crowded around the side of the hut furthest from the door, in the hopes of escaping any sounds that might be coming from Jall’s…encounter…with the guard.
“He’s pretty good at this kinda thing,” Yanick replied. She’d woken from her snooze feeling somewhat ill and was holding her extended stomach gingerly.
“Aye,” Jeffery agreed. He’d been staring at the rock wall to the one side of the waterfall since T’Parief had left. He’d barely seen the low shadow easing across it, and had to admit that T’Parief was probably right: the partying Matrians wouldn’t notice a thing.
“What does he think is back there, anyway?” Yanick wondered.
“Doesn’t matter,” Stern replied, “If it was important for us to know, he would have told us,”
“Unless he forgot,” Simmons yawned, “Like that time he forgot to mention that Harka stunners cause two months of acne,”
“There wasn’t any reason for us to know that,” Stern shrugged, “We weren’t supposed to get shot on the mission to Harka,”
“Are we ever?”
“Hmm. Good point.”
Mardsen was also looking out the window, but he was paying more attention to the revellers than to the waterfall.
“Where’s the band?” he wondered.
“I hear drums. I hear some other weird percussion-like things. But I don’t see any drummers. Do you?”
The away team looked around, moving to some of the other windows to get a better view.
“I’ve heard that primitive Earth used to have something that could do this,” Yanick said thoughtfully, “I think they called it an eye-pawed.”
“That sounds painful,” Stern mused.
“Ah’m pretty sure nobody that wore loin-cloths and lived in tree villages had music machines,” Jeffery said.
There was a sudden crash and Jall was propelled back into the room, followed by two guards. His uniform top was askew, but he was otherwise decent. The first guard was in a similar state, except that while Jall looked completely surprised, the guard looked furious.
“Where’s the lizard?” The second guard demanded, looking grim and determined…he must be the one that somehow noticed they were a prisoner short.
“Um…stepped out to use the john?” Jeffery tried.
More Matrians were running up the wooden stairway and climbing quickly up the rope ladders. One of them let out a war cry, one that was quickly echoed.
“Guys, you remember how T’Parief said the fighting part was over?” Stern asked.
Stern snapped a long wooden rod off one of the walls, then spun it and slammed it into the side of the second guard’s head. Kreklor tackled the first guard, knocking his spear to the side where it was picked up by Dar’ugal.
“Forget about that. We’re back to ass-kicking!”
A Matrian poked his head through the window, just in time for Yanick to plant a boot firmly on his forehead, sending him sprawling onto the ground below. Two more rushed through the door, only to be met by fists, spear shafts and kicks.
“You know, we can’t keep this up for long,” Stern said to Jall and Jeffery, “This is one of those times where the HT kicks ass until the senior officers figure out how to get us all out of this mess!”
“Hey, I already did my part,” Jall said, gesturing to the now-unconscious guard he’d been in the process of seducing.
“Oh, aye. Ah can see that was such hard work for ye,”
“It wasn’t going to be much fun anyway,” Jall shot back.
“And why’s that?”
Jall held up his thumb and forefinger about three inches apart.
“Ye disgust me,”
“GUYS!” Stern shouted, wincing as he rendered a female fighter unconscious, “Now would be a good time!”
“I wish I’d never gotten involved in the rebellion!” Bhetti wailed, wringing her hands.
“How do you think WE feel?” Jall asked, “We don’t even LIVE in this sector!”
Storms of primitive Matrians were now rushing the hut from all sides.
“OK, that’s it! We’re boned!” Stern cried.
Then the whole team dissolved in transporter sparkles.
The first think Jeffery saw when he opened his eyes (he hadn’t even realized he’d squeezed them shut) was T’Parief standing behind a Matrian control panel.
“Oh my GOD!” Jall exclaimed, “You are officially my favourite person! For at least the next five minutes anyway.”
“Yeah, good timing, sir,” Stern agreed.
“It’s almost like you could sense that we were in terrible danger,” Rengs nodded.
T’Parief pointed at a screen mounted on one wall of what was undoubtedly a Matrian transporter room. The hexagonal display was divided into 6 areas, each one displaying a different video feed from different points in the village. One of them showed a group of very confused-looking Matrians standing in the middle of their former prison.
T’Parief ran his hands over the panel again and the equipment they’d salvaged from the Qu’Eh runabout appeared on the pad.
“We must move quickly,” he said, “The Matrians will be here very soon.” He turned and stepped through the doors, which swished open immediately, revealing an eerily familiar corridor.
“Um…where’s here?” Stern asked. He followed T’Parief out the door, then stopped in his tracks. The corridor was almost identical to the corridors in the outer rim of the Haven installation. The architecture was similar, but different enough to suggest that it had either been built by different designers, in a different time period, or both. But the curved walls, the twin rows of lighting panels and the inset lighting shining up at the wall panels were very similar to Haven. However, where Haven had a sort of smokey red pattern on the rim corridor panels, these ones were a blank grey.
“We are in an underground Old Matrian military outpost,” T’Parief said, “One established during the Gender Wars,”
“How do ye know that?” Jeffery asked. They followed T’Parief as he strode down the corridor.
“The Matrian villagers knew of the Gender Wars, but not that they had ended,” T’Parief explained, “Their men are genetically advanced. If there were truly a primitive people, the men should have been like the un-altered men we found frozen in Haven,”
“And you’re assuming they knew about this place,”
“Their ancestors built it,” Jall said. They crowded into a lift that was close to but not quite the same design as the lifts in Haven.
“Or they were stationed here, at least,” T’Parief nodded.
Jeffery looked between the two of them.
“Ye knew??” he demanded, turning to Jall, “Ye BOTH knew???”
“I…suspected,” T’Parief said.
T’Parief snagged one of the tricorders the team had recovered. Turning it on, he turned the display to Jeffery.
“Familiar?” he inquired.
Jeffery looked at the readout. There were a few intermittent readings, but for the most part, the tricorder was unusable.
“And our comm-badges didn’t work either, just like in Haven” Jeffery realized, “The only ones that did…”
“Were the Old Matrian ones that had been designed to function within the interference field generated by Haven,” T’Parief said.
“There’s another interference field over the village? And this base?”
“Over this entire island,” T’Parief nodded.
Jeffery was about to ask how he knew they were on an island when the doors hissed open, revealing a command complex nearly identical to the one perched atop Haven’s command tower.
“Holy shit,” Stern observed.
The complex wasn’t exactly the same as Haven. The fancy red & black paneling had been replaced with a simple blue motif, and the snazzy railings had been replaced by ones that were simply functional. The floors were bare metal and only one lift came up through the floor. But the basic design of a lower level with the lift, a second, ring-shaped level with double-high display panels and a third, circular command level with consoles and a holo-table was the same. The windows in the ceiling were gone, replaced by paneled metal, and only three windows looked down in a 180 degree arc. The ceiling had split in the ‘back’, the side of the complex that didn’t have windows looking down, and a mix of sand, gravel and clay had spilled in. There was water damage on some of the equipment on that side as well.
“I haven’t been here long enough to learn much about this place,” T’Parief said, “But what I know is this: It is a military base, much smaller than Haven and built afterward.” He gave them a significant look.
“It is also unlocked. Marsden, you will access logs. Jeffery, you will assess the technology. Jall, you will attempt to find an escape. The rest of you will guard the lift for the inevitable counter-attack,”
“What about me?” Yanick asked.
“You can help me, Trish,” Jall said, taking her gently by the arm.
Everybody jumped into action. Jeffery dropped himself into a seat facing a now-familiar Old Matrian control pulpit. Unlike the ones in Haven, this one was fully active. The panels near his hands were lit with dozens of candy-coloured buttons, arranged in groups of three. The exception was the small center panel, which seemed to hold a touch pad. The wide, hexagonal display was divided into four smaller screens on the sides, a wide, split screen in the center and two wider screens towards the top and bottom. Text was scrolling up two of the screens, but Jeffery couldn’t read the Matrian script.
Jeffery thought for a moment. His tricorder was unreliable in the interference field. So how could he turn the gibbery Matrian script into something usable?”
“Mr. Jeffery, didn’t we upload a translation matrix into the Matrian Defence HQ computers?” Marsden asked.
“Aye,” Jeffery nodded, “Standard procedure for a new member planet,”
“Do you think this place has the same kind of data connection as Haven?”
Jeffery thought carefully. He knew Haven had a secure, encrypted and un-traceable connection to MDHQ computers. He figured it had been set up centuries ago when the place was constructed, to handle standard data transmission requirements and had been forgotten about during the Gender Wars and the Dark Age. If Haven had that kind of connection, there was no reason to believe this place didn’t. In fact, it might have other things that Haven had…
Jeffery ran his hand over the underside of one panel, right over the spot that Craigan had explained as containing the security DNA reader. There was a momentary pause, then the display switched to Federation Standard.
<<Authorization granted. Welcome, Lt. Commander Jeffery>>
“Gotta love a well-programmed authentication system,” Jeffery called, “The place is using our security profiles from the MDHQ computers.”
“Enough techno-babble,” T’Parief said, “Get to work.”
A couple moments passed where nothing could be heard but the beeping of buttons.
“I’m sealing off as many security doors as I can,” Jall said, “The place isn’t very big. Ten levels, a main entrance hidden in the jungle about five hundred meters from here, then the back door behind the waterfall. There’s some kind of access tunnel, but I’m not sure what’s it’s for,”
“Ah know,” Jeffery said, staring at the screen. He tapped a button.
“T’Parief, you need to look at this,” he said.
There was a humming, then banks of lights came to life outside the three big windows. Jeffery and T’Parief rushed down the stairs to the lower level, then looked out.
“Definitely a military base,” Jeffery said.
They were looking out in a small cavern. It was tiny compared to most of the ones they’d found on Matria Prime so far. It was orders of magnitude smaller than the caverns under the major cities, tiny even compared to Fifebee’s estimates of the cavern surrounding Haven’s center island. It was perhaps ten levels high, about the same as of one of Haven’s docking bays. It was wider, however, and filled with water. A half-submerged tunnel led off into the distance, and several docks hugged the walls and extended out into the water. At each dock was the gleaming hull of a submarine.
“Military submarines,” Jeffery said, “According to the specs in the computer, they’re armed with programmable-yield antimatter warheads on inter-continental missiles.”
“Hey, I think that access tunnel I was talking about leads to the ocean,” Jall called down from above.
“We know, ye git!” Jeffery called back.
“Well pardon me for trying to help!”
Marsden had come down to join them.
“From what I can tell in the logs, this place was built about thirty years after the attack on Matronus,” he said, giving his report, “It was-“
There was a shimmer of transporter sparks as no less than fifty armed Matrian primitives materialized around the command center.
“Uh oh,” Jeffery muttered, holding up his hands in surrender.
Leader Hylin stepped out from the crowd.
“Now we have little choice but to kill you,” she said.
“AUTO-DESTRUCT IN TWO MINUTES” the computer announced.
Hylin looked around in surprise.
“Hey, T’Parief,” Jall called, “Guess what I found?”
“Here we go again,” Jeffery muttered. Marsden just held his hands up, looking somewhat terrified as one of the Matrians held a spear to his neck.
“Kill us, and your base is destroyed,” T’Parief said, immediately taking charge of the situation.
Hylin shot a look at one of her people. He pulled a padd-sized device and tapped. One of the double-high displays came to life, showing the destruct countdown.
“How did you get access?” she demanded.
“When the Matrian government joined the Federation, Starfleet officers serving in this sector were added to the security database, “Jeffery said.
“We are not your enemies,” T’Parief said.
“You invade our island,” Drep accused, “You attack our people. You break into our greatest secret and you threaten to destroy it,”
“And you expect us to believe that now is not the time to fight?” Hylin snapped.
“It is the time to fight,” T’Parief said calmly, “But we are not the enemy,”
“AUTO-DESTRUCT IN ONE MINUTE.”
“You world is under siege,” T’Parief said, “But the time to strike back is coming soon.”
“AUTO-DESTRUCT IN FOURTY SECONDS.”
“What are your terms?” Hylin demanded.
“We want to talk,” Jeffery said, “Really!”
“There are eleven of us,” T’Parief said, “All but eleven of your people leave. We all lower our weapons. Jall turns off the auto-destruct, and we will discuss the situation,”
Hylin barked a word in Matrian. With a shimmer, most of her people vanished in transporter beams.
Jall tapped in the cancellation code.
The two groups stared at each other for a moment.
“You came here during the Gender Wars,” T’Parief said. It wasn’t a question.
“Our ancestors did,” Hylin said. She sighed. “They were stationed here about thirty years into the wars. The base here was built to extend the Council of Mistresses’ ability to strike against the Coalition of Five,”
“The WHO?” Jeffery demanded.
“The Coalition of Five,” Hylin looked confused, “The governing body for the eastern continent,”
“We thought the Matrian Empire had a unified planetary government,” Marsden blinked.
“It did…at the start of the war,” Drep said, “As the war went on, old nation-states split off and went their own way,”
“You claim to be allies of Matria, but you know nothing of our history?” Hylin demanded.
“Ohhh, that’s a long story,” Jall groaned from the level above them. He quickly explained the issues with Mistress Laurette’s tampering with the Matrian library database during the Dark Age.
“Your ancestors were stationed here,” T’Parief said, trying to bring the conversation back to his interests, “Were they never deployed?”
“They were ordered to attack one of the Coalition nation-states with an antimatter missile barrage,” Hylin said, “They refused,”
“The war had been running for thirty years!” Drep shook his head, “Our world had broken into dozens of states, each with their own ideas about how the new men and the women should fit together in society,”
“You do know about the altered men, right?” Hylin raised an eyebrow.
“Our ancestors decided to go their own way,” Drep went on, “They were on an island, protected by the base’s stealth field. They decided to return to an earlier way of living, an earlier stage in Matrian development, and to see what kind of society would develop given the changes in the male gender.”
“And they didn’t worry that the Council of Mistresses would come looking for them?”
“They adjusted the remote sensors so that to the Central Command, the island appeared to have been decimated by a biological attack.”
“And ye’ve been hidin’ here ever since,” Jeffery finished.
“We have passed on our knowledge and our technology,” Hylin said, “We are a civilized people,”
“You’ve gotta admit, they’ve got a nice little paradise going on down here,” Jall said.
Jeffery, T’Parief and Jall quickly outlined the recent history of Matria Prime, explaining how the women (the Council of Mistresses?) had won the war using the M-SID technology, how the women had gone into stasis and lived their lives in the virtual Dreamland while the men worked to rebuild their world. They spoke of the Matrian attempt to gain power over the sector, about the M-SIDS they sent off to find the ‘perfect/perfectly controllable’ male (Jeffery blushed a bit here) and how Silverado had woken the women from their sleep. They talked about the Qu’Eh invasion, the fall of Matria Prime, and the underground installation they’d been hiding in for the past several weeks.
“Ye don’t happen to know anything about that place, do ye?” Jeffery asked.
“We do not. But it may be in the records,” Drep said.
“We have discussed much,” Hylin said, “But what you haven’t told us is what it is you want from us,”
“We want to get back to Haven,” Jeffery said, “There’s a rebellion goin’ on, a relief fleet on the way and a hell of a lot of work to do!”
T’Parief was looking out into the cavern.
“And your submarines would be useful,”
“Whot? How?” Jeffery demanded, “Ye cannae take out a space-goin’ fleet with a few antimatter missiles!”
“No, we can’t,” T’Parief nodded, “But imagine the Qu’Eh surprise if, while fighting the Federation fleet-“
“They suddenly had surface-launched warheads crammed up their tailpipes!” Jall said gleefully.
Hylin and Drep were speaking back and forth in soft tones. After a few minutes, they turned to the Starfleet officers.
“Our people rarely come into the base,” Hylin said, “We have little reason to. But we do know how to operate its technology. Give us access to the records in the Central Command,”
“It’s Matrian Defence HQ now,” Jall said helpfully.
“And if we can corroborate your story, we will help you,” Hylin finished.
“You don’t have access yourselves?”
“Our ancestors gave us control over everything in this base,” she said, “But they could not grant us access to the external data-net.”
“Which we just happen to have,” Jeffery said.
“Convenient,” T’Parief grumbled.
Two days later, Yanick was piloting one of the Matrian submarines through the underwater access tunnel.
“So, that trip wasn’t exactly a waste, was it?” Jall said cheerfully. He was fully recovered from his time with the Qu’Eh, as was Bhetti. Yanick was uncomfortable, but hadn’t grown any worse and Jeffery’s planters wart had finally fallen off.
“You are sure the Qu’Eh will not detect this sub?” T’Parief demanded.
“Aye,” Jeffery said, “Ah doubt they’re even lookin’ underwater. And if they are, the SR generator we salvaged should keep us hidden,”
“We will have to send a team back here to outfit the other subs,” Jall said.
“And to see if we can get communications going over this ‘data-net’ they mentioned,”
“Probably the same network Haven’s plugged in to,” Jeffery shrugged, “An old, classified military network that was forgotten about durin’ the war. Or after.”
“No more techno-babble, please,” Stern groaned.
On the display screen at the front of the sub’s control room, the computer-generated image showed the tunnel walls falling away as the sub slipped into the warm ocean.
“So…” Yanick wondered, “Anybody know which way to the Evendra Desert?”
Jall, Jeffery and Stern exchanged a confused look.
“You mean, none of us brought a map?” Stern asked.
“Uh-oh,” Jeffery muttered.
T’Parief just grumbled.