Author: Brendan Chris
Invasion of Matria Prime +22 Days, +/- 1 Day, accurate to 85% 19 times out of 20
“I’M GONNA PUKE!”
“WHERE’S THE BARF BAGS?”
“Hey, keep that energy thingy under control, you’re messing with the flight circuitry!”
“I do beg your pard-AHHH!”
Stafford, Jeffery, Valtaic, T’Parief and Yanick were all crammed into the cockpit of a small Senousian vessel as it flew, or rather, skipped across the desert, mere minutes after leaving the exposed hanger bay of the underground Old Matrian installation. Lieutenant Yanick sat at the helm, frantically adjusting the controls as the small ship bounced around them. Only T’Parief seemed unbothered by the spine-jolting bumps.
“Look, I’m flying on anti-grav pulses here!” she cried, “If you think YOU can fly this thing without being detected by the Qu’Eh, BE MY GUEST!”
Stafford twined his fingers into his restraints and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Just wake me when it’s over!” he moaned.
In an effort to leave as little a drive trail as possible, Yanick was keeping the ship in the air with only brief pulses of power to the anti-gravity units. The technique had been used for over a hundred years, mostly to avoid detection when studying planets with 20th Century level technology. Granted, the Qu’Eh had sensor systems the average 20th Century level planet didn’t, but Stafford was relying on Jeffery and Valtaic’s rigged sensor jammers to help with that. The problem was that inertial dampeners just couldn’t cope with the crazy pogo-stick style flight path that had resulted from the anti-grav hops. The end result being, well.
“Did he get the bag?” Yanick called, “Please tell me he got the bag!”
“He got…most of the bag,” Valtaic replied, glancing over one shoulder.
The ground underneath them was gradually changing from the arid sand of the desert to the more rocky coastal terrain found near one of Matria’s major oceans. From there they could take a direct path to the outskirts of Matronus.
“How much longer is this gonna take?” Stafford groaned.
“Oh, just an hour or so,” Yanick shrugged, “Plenty of time to get used to it.”
“Excellent,” T’Parief smiled.
As Yanick piloted the Senousian ship halfway across the planet, the Hazardous Team was just getting up.
“I can’t go through another day of that,” Ensign Simmons said. His bedroll, borrowed from the Matrian rebels, was pushed up against one wall and at least twenty meters from everybody else. (This was due to the homemade explosive he was now sleeping with like a teddy-bear.)
“I agree,” Marsden groaned, “And this rock floor is doing horrible things to my spine! I can’t take those office chairs on top of this!”
“I’d rather not have my head blown off for being late,” Stern said, fingering the explosive ‘loyalty collar’ Quali-Tech had installed.
“Who’s ready for breakfast!?” a far too cheerful voice called. Jural, Wowryk’s contact in Matrian Intelligence, entered the rocky cavern/room with a steaming tray, “I made splakrats for everybody!”
“They’re actually very good,” Wowryk told them, following him into the room. She was still munching on a round…something.
“What are they?” Simmons asked.
“Ohh, ground Spla rats, a little grub seasoning and some of that Tabasco stuff I found in your ration packs,” Jural said cheerfully.
Stern turned away and started dry-heaving.
“WELL!” Jural snapped, slamming the tray down and looking offended, “Fine! Be that way!”
He turned and stormed out of the room.
Everybody glared at Stern.
“Great, I’ve got a strategy-planning meeting with him and Laheya this morning!” Wowryk cried, “And now he’s going to be in an unholy mood!”
“Not to mention he probably won’t cook for us anymore,” Simmons said, grabbing a splakrat off the tray.
“What?” Stern asked innocently, “I was just getting my hidden comm badge back!” he held up the small device he’d just forced up.
“That’s disgusting,” Wowryk said.
“It would have been more disgusting if I’d tried bringing it up AFTER breakfast, believe you me!”
“So who are you calling?” Wowryk asked.
“I thought we’d try calling Stafford. After breakfast,” he clarified.
“Leave it with me then,” Wowryk said, “You four are going to work,”
“Why?” Simmons asked, “don’t we know enough about Quali-Tech already??”
“You can never have too much information,” Wowryk said primly, “According to Jural, anyway. Besides, if you get fired it’ll be harder to blow parts of it up later, right?”
“Ohhh, right,” Simmons said, thoughtfully caressing his bomb.
“Have you reacquired their signal yet?” Manager Garer asked.
“Nothing yet,” replied Har, one his Garer’s most trusted Supervisors, “I’ve got three Representatives assigned to monitoring the intruders. We lost their signal in the underground transit system last night. We assume they’re hiding in the cavern or in tunnels under the city, where the rock may be blocking the tracking signal.”
“Their shift starts in half an hour,” Garer fretted, “They’ve got to show up soon!”
“Don’t worry, Manager,” Garer said, “The moment the Chairman decides he wants them brought in, we can send the Trackers down into the tunnels to flush them out.
“Yes, yes that is something of a comfort,” Garer agreed.
“All of our plans depend on us remaining hidden here,” Mistress Laheya, one of the leaders of the Matrian Rebellion (formerly called the Females Against Male Integration and for Negative Evolution) said, “That’s a risk we just can’t take. The Qu’Eh were already poking around the main cavern looking for functional Dream Machines, you know they could start searching these tunnels at any time!”
“I don’t understand why they haven’t already,” Agent Jural said. Wowryk had managed to calm him down after his earlier temper tantrum, “They’re the single most obvious hiding place in the city,”
“Maybe that’s why?” Laheya suggested, “They’re so obvious we’d be idiots to be using them?”
“That implies that we’re idiots,” Jural said crossly, “Which I don’t for a moment believe.”
“More likely the Qu’Eh aren’t willing to invest the manpower for such a search, given that the rebellion really hasn’t DONE ANYTHING SO FAR!” Laheya shouted.
Wowryk had a sudden thought.
“We’re like a disease,” she said calmly, “We’re lurking deep in the cells while the body’s immune system is too busy dealing with an infection in the bloodstream to come after us,”
“Oh right, you used to be a doctor,” Laheya inclined her head.
“When an infection focuses on a particular organ, I can more easily identify it and come up with a method of treatment,” Wowryk went on, having unconsciously slipped into her professional ‘talking to patients’ voice, “It’s when the unholy sickness moves or remains hidden that my job is made harder.”
“So it’s agreed, we have to move our base of operations,” Jural said, with an air of finality.
“More than that,” Wowryk went on, “Nobody has died from a virus or bacteria that simply sits in their system and does nothing. We’ve sent out spies, we’ve issued an ultimatum to the Qu’Eh. But if we do not become a bloated tumour in the heart of the Qu’Eh, we’ll never defeat them,”
“Are you trying to make a point, or just upset my stomach?” Jural asked.
“I’m saying,” Wowryk shot back, “That we need to start some of our plans into action now. Tonight. And Quali-Tech is only the beginning.”
“Thank you for calling…um…” Ensign Simmons hunted around on his work screen for his greeting script. He had no idea if the incoming call was for Galicti-Cast, Robellus or one of the other dozen companies the Qu’Eh did business with “Um, Robellus. “This is Simmons. How may I help you today?”
Five minutes later, he was hanging up on a very upset customer who screamed insults over his parentage.
“Excellent call, Simmons,” Supervisor Mofuut said, “You followed the call flow exactly! Of course, it would be better if you used your first name.”
“I don’t remember it,” Simmons said quietly.
“Yes, well, we’ll have to deduct some points for that. Also, your tone, it just wasn’t fully natural. You hesitated, and you missed at least five opportunities for friendly banter.”
“I don’t think she wanted to be friendly,”
“Yes, well. Anyway, I’m afraid that call didn’t meet minimum standards. Shall we say five minutes?”
Mofuut pressed his hand against a panel on Simmons’ desk, then tapped a button. Restraints suddenly jumped out, clamping Simmons to the chair. Shocks of energy started running through him, causing his body to jolt.
“Yes, well, I’m sure you’ll do better on your next call,” Mofuut said cheerfully.
Two desks over, Lt. Cmdr Stern had just finished following his troubleshooting flow for a Bhell customer.
“Monsters,” Stern muttered under his breath, watching as Simmons jerked and twitched..
“I beg your pardon, young woman?” his customer asked.
“I’m sorry, just talking to myself. “ Stern said. He didn’t bother correcting her on his gender, it would just cost him quality points. Besides, for all he knew, on her planet he would be considered a woman. Just where in the galaxy did the Qu’Eh get their customer base? “Um, I would be more than happy to send you a replacement part. You’re under warranty, so of course it’s at no charge. And you’ll find the installation is fairly easy. It should only take you four or five hours,”
“I insist you send a technician to install it for me!”
“I’m sorry, that’s against policy, as you only have the standard warranty,” Stern read, word-for-word, off the screen.
Of course, the conversation went predictably downhill from there.
The second his break started, Stern hunted for his team. Simmons and Marsden were still out on the call floor but Rengs was sitting miserably in a corner chair.
“Enough of this,” he said quietly, “We’re not waiting for Wow…for you know who. We’re taking action now.”
He looked around.
“And by now, I mean as soon as Simmons and Marsden have their break.
Stafford and Jeffery sat side by side on a Matronus travel tram. They’d left Yanick, Valtaic and T’Parief guarding the ship and ready to rush in for an extraction in the event things went wrong. Stafford had lost count of just how many times he’d been forced to leave T’Parief behind because the reptile officer just couldn’t blend in with a crowd. Stafford himself had used a follicle stimulator to give himself a big, bushy beard while Jeffery had plastered a big rub-on tattoo onto the side of his face.
“How are we going to find them, anyway?” Jeffery asked.
“According to Stern we have to ride this thing to Salet Station. Then we call and get somebody to come get us,” he held up the small Matrian comm-badge he held.
“Is that thing even going to work outside the bunker?” Jeffery asked.
“Hey, you’re the engineer. You tell me.”
Nearby, a Matrian couple exchanged glances.
“If these are the best rebels we have, our civilization is doomed,” the woman remarked.
“Hey, we’re not rebels!” Stafford objected.
“Of course not. That’s why you’re not wearing goofy disguises and not talking about bunkers and meetings,” the man replied.
“Yeah well, you’re just…taking things out of context!” Jeffery insisted.
The tram hissed to a stop. A sign declared them to be at Vedret Station. The couple stood.
“Just be careful,” the woman admonished them, “Qu’Eh patrols are always sweeping the tram system.”
“And if you blow up any of our friends, we’ll turn you in!” the man said sassily.
“Best of luck,” the woman nodded, then they stepped off the tram.
Stafford and Jeffery exchanged a glance as the tram shot back into motion.
“She’s got to be a grade-school teacher, or somethin’,” Jeffery said.
“Yeah, I haven’t been told to play nice like that in years,” Stafford frowned.
“I want to hit the Qu’Eh landing fields at the Matronus Spaceport,” Laheya was saying, gesturing at a map. Around them, rebels were packing up what supplies they had and preparing them to move to a new location, “They’re still using their ships for all of their planetary troop movement. If we can cut that off, they’ll have to depend on local transport.”
“That would make them very vulnerable,” Jural agreed.
“What about the spaceports in your regional capitols?” Wowryk wanted to know, “Matronus is the key city on this continent, but there’s the southern hemisphere to consider,”
“If we can make Matronus unusable to them, they’ll be forced to either move the entire government to the southern hemisphere or to separate their occupation troops from their central command,” Laheya said, “Either works to our advantage,”
“I see,” Wowryk said. In truth, she really didn’t. She’d been able to function as Jall’s First Officer during the battle because like all Starfleet officers she had some training in command and tactics, at least as far as they related to space battle. But planning this sort of…insurgency…was something far beyond her. She suspected it was largely beyond Jural as well, leaving them both somewhat dependant on Laheya for direction.
On the other hand, Laheya only had the loyalty of the old FAMINE rebels, a fairly small group that Governess Laurette had been trying to fund to overthrow Queen Anselia’s government. Their ranks had been swelling since the invasion, but most of the new members were loyal to Anselia’s idea of a free and equal Matria for all Matrians. Without Wowryk acting as a symbol of that idea, Laheya couldn’t control the growing rebel organization.
The comm-badge Wowryk had taken from Stern chirped. She stepped discreetly away from the planning table.
“I want immediate attacks here and here,” Jural said, pointing to the map, “A communications switching station and a deuterium processing plant. Aim to disable, not to destroy. Oh blast, I chipped a nail!”
“Runners!” Layheya snapped her fingers. Two young Matrian, a man and a woman, jogged over. Laheya quickly outlined the targets and the timings.
“Go find the Bevin district cell,” she ordered, “They’re closest to the targets.”
The two rebels nodded, then ran off into the tunnels.
Wowryk had returned to the table.
“We have a problem,” she said.
“We have many problems,” Jural said, patting her arm.
“What kind of problem?” Laheya demanded.
“The political kind,” Wowryk sighed, “And the commanding officer kind,”
“We’re blowing up the transceiver array,” Stern said quietly. He had gathered with Rengs, Marsden and Simmons during their lunch break, “Now. Then we’re getting out of here.”
“G-Good,” Simmons said, his face still twitching from the shocks he’d received.
“And what do you plan on blowing it up with?” Rengs asked, “We’re a bit short of explosives, if you didn’t notice,”
“No, I can’t,” Simmons cut in. He held up one shaking hand, steaming slightly from the electric shocks, “If I tried building a bomb like this, I’d blow us all up.”
“Ohhh. Well, then it’s on to Plan B.” Stern said. He stood, “C’mon, we’re sneaking up to the roof,”
Stafford and Jeffery were met in the transit system by a nondescript Matrian who identified himself as being with the rebels. He led them through a few nondescript passages until he reached a hidden panel. The clean, tiled transit tunnels abruptly gave way to a rough passage carved through solid rock and leading down under the city. After several minutes of walking, the tunnel branched. Down the other branch, Jeffery could barely make out the huge, abandoned suspended animation chamber. After a few more twists and turns (and at least two secret knocks) they were led into a room that looked like it too had been cut out of solid rock. Jeffery let out a breath as he saw the woman standing there.
“Noel!” Stafford exclaimed happily, rushing forward and pulling the surprisingly compliant woman into a hug. “Oh my God, I’m so happy to see you!”
“Then I suppose I’ll forgive you for taking the Lord’s name in vain,” Wowryk said, with just a hint of a smile.
“In vain? I just found my favourite doctor! That’s not in vain!” Stafford laughed, unaware that Jeffery had suddenly started glaring daggers in his direction.
Jural wasn’t looking too happy either.
“Clever, Captain,” Wowryk said, this time smiling outright, “May I introduce Special Agent Jural, our contact with the Matrian government and Mistress Laheya, formerly of the FAMINE organization, now the leader of the Matrian Rebellion.”
“Just the people we wanted to find,” Stafford said, nodding at each, “Look, Queen Anselia and the rest of the Council are thrilled with what you’re doing. We’ve got ourselves a huge, mostly empty base of operations out in the middle of the desert. What say we all head out there until the fleet arrives?”
The Wowryk, Jural and Laheya exchanged a look.
“Why would we do that?” Laheya asked, “I am trying to lead a rebellion here! I have no interest in hiding like a coward under the desert!”
“I’m here to serve the Matrian government,” Jural added, “We’re just in the process of organizing dozens of cells in Matronus alone to start fighting against the Qu’Eh. Now is NOT the time to leave!”
“Oh,” Stafford looked surprised. “Well, OK. I understand your desire to fight for your planet,” he finished diplomatically. “So, Noel, what say we pack up the Hazardous Team and get out of here?”
Jural and Laheya looked at Wowryk expectantly.
“The Hazardous Team is better suited to fast strikes, and should operate out of the bunker,” she said slowly, “Keklor and Dar’ugal just aren’t suited to undercover work,”
“I knew making you First Officer was a good idea,” Stafford said warmly.
“But I’m staying here,” Wowryk finished quietly.
The smile fell of Stafford’s face.
“I was wrong,” he muttered. Then, louder, “What do you mean ‘you’re staying here’?? “
“I mean what I said, Chris,” Wowryk said, “I’m involved. I can’t just turn my back on these people, the way you have!”
“Hey, I was STUNNED with a WEAPON and DRAGGED into that bunker!” Stafford objected loudly.
“By who?” Jural asked curiously.
“Ohh, that catty bitch!”
“Noel, ye don’t belong here,” Jeffery jumped in, “Yer in danger. The Qu’Eh want ye dead, and if they get their hands on ye-“
“The Qu’Eh had their hands on me for a good two weeks!” Wowryk snapped, “They don’t want me dead, they want me to help them control the Matrian people!”
“Actually, after that little announcement we made, we’re fairly sure they want you dead,” Jural said helpfully, “Noel, I agree with them. You should go where you’ll be safe.”
“You can be a symbol from the bunker,” Laheya said, “Jural and I can lead from the front lines,”
“ABSOLUTELY NOT!” Wowryk snapped, “I can’t inspire your people to fight while I cower in safety! This is our cause, and WE will lead it!”
“Noel,” Stafford said, “The fleet should be here any day-“
“We don’t even know for certain that the fleet is coming,” Wowryk said flatly.
Stafford, Jeffery and the Matrians stared at her in shock.
“What?” somebody forced out.
“We…we got a message from Tunney right after the battle,” Wowryk said, her face tight, “Tunney is keeping the fleet at Waystation until he can get his hands on some bigger ships,”
“Why didn’t you TELL US?” Laheya barked. Stafford had gone pale, his mouth gaping open.
“Because Jall sent a message to…to somebody before he sent me off,” Wowryk said carefully, “And if anybody can get us the ship we need, it’s him.”
Stafford was shaking his head.
“This changes everything,” he muttered, “Anselia, the council, the whole rebellion.” He started pacing, “Without the fleet, we’re helpless!”
“We’re screwed,” Jeffery agreed.
“Now we see what Federation membership is worth,” Laheya said with contempt.
“The Qu’Eh would have come anyway,” Jural said softly, “Do you really think we would have held up any better on our own?”
Laheya was silent.
“Who did Jall message?” Stafford demanded angrily, “Who could POSSIBLY talk somebody out of a whole battle…ship…” he trailed off, then spun to face Wowryk, a glimmer of hope in his eyes.
“Noonan,” he said. Wowryk nodded. Stafford nearly laughed.
“Of all the people…” he shook his head, “Ohhh, Jall. You finally did something right. Of all the people that might actually help us!” His expression grew grim again.
“We’re getting our people off Silverado,” he declared, “We can’t leave them up there in Qu’Eh hands until Noonan gets here. We can’t have them repairing that ship for the Qu’Eh. Not with this new time frame.”
He continued pacing.
“Jeffery, could you beam somebody to the installation without being detected?”
Jeffery shook his head.
“Chris, we managed that during the attack by letting all the defence satellite reactors go critical,” he said, “Unless ye have an easy way to dump a tonne of radiation into orbit, then nay.”
Stafford and Jeffery looked expectantly at the Matrians.
“Don’t look at us,” Jural said, “We cannot help you with that,”
“Sorry,” Jeffery shrugged, “Usually in situations like this, this is the part where somebody says ‘Well, this could be possible if…’,”
Jural and Laheya consulted in whispers for a moment.
“We can get you access to a ground-based transporter pad,” Laheya said cautiously, “But it would be up to you to get somebody aboard your ship to perform the jailbreak.”
“We have a sensor-shielded ship,” Stafford said, “We can do that,”
“There is a condition, however,” Laheya said, holding up one finger.
“Money? Power?” Jeffery queried.
“Sex?” Stafford asked hopefully. Wowryk smacked him on the arm.
“Perhaps later,” Jural said, ignoring Stafford’s muttered ‘I meant with HER’, “But no. We want Wowryk to stay here.”
“Agreed,” Wowryk said at once.
“No, NOT agreed!” Stafford barked, “Look, I’m your Minister of Planetary Defence-“
“Actually, ye resigned,” Jeffery pointed out.
Stafford smacked him upside the head.
“You weren’t supposed to tell them that!”
“He was being honest,” Wowryk nodded approvingly.
“Look, I’m still the ranking Starfleet officer in this sector!” Stafford snapped, “Wowryk is one of my officers and-“
“Chris, don’t do this,” Wowryk said, stepping in front of Stafford, “I’m involved in this rebellion because you ordered me into a leadership role. You wanted me to be a symbol to the Matrians. You were right. As long as I can help them, you have to let me stay here,”
“Noel, don’t be-“ Jeffery started.
“Simon, don’t argue with me,” Wowryk said, “Chris, Simon, you’re both very special to me, granted in different ways. This is something I need you to understand: I have to finish this,”
Stafford swallowed. He looked like he was on the verge of saying something for several moments. Then he spun towards Jural.
“If anything happens to her,” he threatened.
“You’ll what? Put a note in my file?”
“We’ll shoot ye out a torpedo tube into the sun!” Jeffery said angrily.
“Oh. Then I suppose I better take care of her,” Jural said.
“We still need the HT,” Stafford said.
“Dar’ugal and Keklor are keeping watch on the Quali-Tech building, the Qu’Eh installation built on the edge of the city,” Wowryk said, “Collecting intelligence. The rest are working there.”
“Oh, good.” Stafford said, “Let’s go get them. By the time we get back, we should have a plan in place.”
“This plan sucks,” Simmons complained as they waited for Marsden to disable the security lock on the roof door, “I’ve almost got feeling back in my fingers, I could just run down to the janitor’s closet and-“
“Shhhh,” Stern admonished him, “We don’t know when security’s coming back!”
There was a soft beep, then the door opened.
“C’mon,” Marsden muttered.
They ran up two more flights of stairs then ducked through a door onto the roof. The roof of the Quali-Tech building, aside from sporting shield generators and a few disruptor cannons, supported a veritable forest of subspace transceiver antennae. Stern heard a footstep and immediately gestured for the rest to move back behind the corner.
Carefully peeking around, he could see a single Qu’Eh soldier patrolling the path between two rows of antennae. Stern carefully waited for the right moment, then jumped out, forcing the full weight of his solid, nearly-two-meter frame onto the smaller man. The Qu’Eh went down like a sack of hammers. Stern bludgeoned his helmet against the ground for good measure, then grabbed his weapon and jumped up.
“This’ll come in handy,” he said.
They snuck toward the center of the array, looking for the central transceiver station. Stern took out two more guards in the process. Only Simmons didn’t have a weapon, a fact the man was NOT happy with.
They quickly found their objective. As they did, there was a shout from the general location of the first guard.
“I knew we should have hidden him somewhere,” Stern said.
Marsden had pried open an access panel and was rummaging around in the guts of the transceiver.
“You realize there’s no guarantee that the detonate commands for these collars use these antennae, right” Marsden said, “We might all get blown to hell as soon as the Qu’Eh figure out it’s us!”
“These guys are doing everything they can to keep costs down,” Stern pointed out, “Do you really think they wanted to spend the money on a separate system?”
The sound of footsteps was getting closer.
“And hurry up!” Rengs said, readying his weapon, “We have company on the way!”
“I’m still trying to find the main power line!” Marsden said, “Or something else with enough juice to fry this stuff! I can’t just shove things in at random! If I don’t start a chain reaction, we won’t get all the-“
A disruptor beam sizzled through the air, just centimeters from Marsden’s head. Stern immediately started firing back.
“OK, I’ll hurry!” Marsden gulped.
Stern and Rengs were now firing back in the general direction of the oncoming Qu’Eh while Marsden buried his arms in the panel. Simmons’ trigger finger kept flexing, as though he had a weapon.
There was a shout from behind them! On reflex, Rengs spun around and fired, narrowly missing Kreklor.
“You started the battle without us!” the Klingon snarled, taking position next to Stern, “We had to climb the drainpipe of the neighbouring building, balance precariously on a ledge as we crept, stealthily towards this building, boldly leap across the alleyway,”
Dar’ugal tapped Kreklor’s arm, then made an odd hand gesture.
“Yes. We also had a stand-off with a very angry alley-cat,” Kreklor added, “It was a fearsome creature!”
“Just shut up and shoot!” Stern snapped.
“We will sing songs of our victory later,” Kreklor promised Dar’ugal. He sighted down his weapon, then fired.
“OK,” Marsden shouted, “If I’ve done this right, we have about two minutes before an irreversible chain reaction takes out the entire transceiver array!”
“Good, let’s go,” Stern said. The Hazardous Team bolted between a row of antennae, firing back at the oncoming Qu’Eh guards as they ran.
“Marsden, is this at all like that holo-simulation where you had to disable a deflector array?” Rengs asked suddenly, panting slightly as he ran.
“Yeah, almost identical.” Marsden replied. “Why?”
“Uh-oh,” Simmons muttered.
“Because you cross-connected the wrong circuits in that simulation!” Stern said, a look of panic in his eyes, “Instead of shorting out the array in a chain reaction after two minutes-“
“THE WHOLE THING VAPORIZED IN THIRTY SECONDS!” Simmons screamed.
“Oh yeah,” he realized, “RUUUUNNNNNN!!!!!!”
Stafford and Jeffery were walking calmly down the street, still wearing their not-so- effective disguises.
“Yer sure this is the way to Quali-Tech?” Jeffery demanded.
“You know,” Stafford said, “You used to question me a lot less when I wasn’t your superior officer,”
“Ah didn’t have to worry about ye gettin’ me into trouble as much,” Jeffery pointed out.
“What about that bar on Bolarus?” Stafford asked, “Y’know, when they politely asked us never to come back to their planet again?”
“That’s different,” Jeffery said, “That was fun,”
“Look, we scope out Quali-Tech, link up with Kreklor and Dar’ugal, wait for the others to get off work, snip off those explosive collars and meet up with Yanick and T’Parief.” Stafford said, “Couldn’t be easier!”
“Atta boy, broadcast our plan to everybody in the vicinity,” Jeffery grumbled.
“You mean the little old Matrian lady walking into the grocery store over there?” Stafford asked.
“She could be a Qu’Eh spy! Or have one of those head-plant thingies,”
“Let’s just get to Quali-Tech before anybody gets suspicious,” Stafford said.
“If Quali-Tech is even anywhere near-“
Both men were knocked to the ground as the roof of a large, drab building erupted into a blinding explosion. Stafford struggle to regain his footing, one hand shielding his eyes.
“My God,” he gasped, “I think we found Quali-“
Jeffery saw nothing more than a blur as a fast-moving figure slammed into Stafford, driving him up against the wall of a nearby building. Jeffery dodged as another blur flew past him, slamming into a table of fruit on display in front of the grocery store.
“It’s OK guys,” Stern called as he pulled himself off of Stafford, “Some poor sap with a beard broke my fall,”
“A fruit broke mine,” Simmons said, trying to pull a very large, very squished melon off his butt, “And it wasn’t even Jall!” Simmons snickered to himself.
“Aww, mom, I’m really not hungry right now,” Stafford mumbled, still sprawled out on the street.
“Way ta go, ye git!” Jeffery shouted, “We came all the way out here ta pick ye up, and ye squish the—UMPH!”
“Jeffery? FINALLY!” Stern cried, seizing Jeffery in an inescapable bear hug, “Somebody in Starfleet who ISN’T Dr. Wowryk!”
“GITOFF ME!” Jeffery shouted, trying to wriggle free, “Ye squished tha Captain!”
“Ohhh,” Stern exclaimed, dropping Jeffery to the ground like a sack of potatoes, “Uh-oh,”
There was another crash and a loud ripping sound as Marsden and Rengs tore through the cloth canopy over the storefront then crashed to the ground.
“Sorry we’re late,” Rengs said, the back of his borrowed Matrian cloths still smoking, “The explosion tossed us up on the roof. Lucky we weren’t any closer!”
Marsden, inevitably, was unconscious.
“Yeah, I’d love to go fishing,” Stafford slurred.
“Hey! You found the Captain!” Rengs exclaimed.
“I’m here too,” Jeffery piped up.
“Me ex-girlfriend delivered yer baby, and ye don’t know me name??”
“It’s coming to me!”
Stern perked up, certain he could hear running boot-steps in the distance.
“I think we’re about to have company,” Stern said, “I’m guessing you don’t have a ship here?”
“It’s parked a ways off,” Jeffery said, “We can’t use the transporter until we figure out a way to mask the signal!”
“We gotta jet,” Stern said. He tossed Stafford over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry.
“Darg, you’ve got Marsden,” he snapped, “See if you can’t get him up and att’em BEFORE the mission ends!”
“In here,” Kreklor snapped, yanking open the door to the grocery store.
Rushing inside, they saw that the few shoppers present had already cowered near the walls. (The Starfleet team couldn’t know it, but business at the market had plummeted since the Qu’Eh had opened up their ‘facility’ down the street.) Like most markets there were aisles of shelves filled with fresh food products, along with another aisle filled with replicators and data chips, where patrons could sample various items and recipes before buying either their replicator patterns or the fresh ingredients required to prepare them. Further back, a series of display screens allowed shoppers to view various cuts of meat available. (For some reason, the Matrians considered displaying actual raw meat taboo.)
“Nobody move!” Stern shouted, staggering under Stafford’s weight.
“I’ll hold still, mommy,” Stafford slurred, rolling his head.
“And ignore him,” Simmons added.
“We’re just a pack of rebels trying to escape the Qu’Eh,” Stern went on, “We’re not here to hurt anybody, we’re just trying not to get killed.”
“ATTENTION STARFLEETERS!” an amplified voice announced loudly from outside, “SURRENDER, AND PREPARE TO BE AUDITED!”
“Well, OK, we’re Starfleet officers helping the rebels,” Simmons shrugged.
“Except for Kreklor. He’s not an officer,” Stern corrected.
“Ye Gods,” Jeffery muttered, shaking his head.
“I don’t wanna go to church, mom!” Stafford added.
Outside of Mip’s Market, Manager Kalmers had beamed down to the surface. The older Qu’Eh was easily recognizable due to a distinguished widow’s peak. His silvery hair was swept back from his ears, keeping it free of the starfish-like ear tendrils and the Qu’Eh implant he wore over one ear. He almost looked like an elf from one of Earth’s fantasy movies, especially now that he wore his dark body armour (rather than his usual business dress) and carried a helmet (instead of his usual briefcase).
“You shouldn’t have said that,” he said crisply, turning to the ground force manager, “You’ve tipped them off to the fact that we already knew they were human, not Matrian,”
“Apologies, Senior Manager,” the other said, grimacing as he bowed his head slightly.
“Don’t apologize to me,” Kalmers sniffed, “But be prepared: it will come up during your assault quality audit,”
Kalmers twitched one ear-tendril, changing the input channel on his implant.
“Five troop transports are en route,” the operator said calmly, her equipment informing her that he was listening without the need for him to say a word, “Heavy weapons are already equipped. We have fixed scanners on all vessels formerly belonging to the Matrians, Senousians or Federations and are monitoring for transporter activity,”
“I didn’t order a transporter monitor,” Kalmers said sharply.
“Negative, sir, it was a Type-4 Initiative Action Response,” the operator replied.
“Excellent,” Kalmers nodded. (The operator couldn’t see the gesture, but the sensor in the implant would have detected it and notified her.) “You will see a positive notation from me on your daily Performance Audit,”
“Finest quality to you, Manager,”
The troop transports were already landing, disgorging armoured Qu’Eh soldiers.
“Send in the first team,” Kalmers ordered.
Inside the grocery store, the HT hadn’t been sitting idle. Stafford and Marsden had been dragged to the back and propped up near the meat displays. Marsden was starting to stir, but Stafford was still delusional. Several shelves were now propped up against the front wall, leaving a variety of packaged food items scattered on the floor.
“Are you sure this place doesn’t have a back door?” Stern demanded, directing the question to the somewhat frightened Matrian proprietor.
“If it did, would I still be here?” the Matrian asked calmly.
“I don’t know, would you?”
“Probably,” the woman admitted, “A chance to throw cans of bena sauce at those Qu’Eh bastards? I couldn’t pass that up,”
“Of course, if would have been nice if you had a few decent woman soldiers, instead of just men,” she added.
“Hey, I dunno about your planet, but where I come from, men kick ass!” Stern said proudly.
“Or, in the case of Jall, they-“
“SHUT UP, Simmons!” Stern snapped.
There was a crash as an object looking suspiciously like a grenade crashed through the window. With almost lightening reflexes, the store proprietor dove on it, grabbed it, and lobbed it back out the window.
There was a flash of light. When they could look again, they saw that over a dozen soldiers had collapsed to the ground while what must be the leaders argued furiously.
“Stun grenade,” Stern whistled, “Nice move!”
“I was a gymnast in Dreamland before the Awakening,” the woman said, “Lower Mistress Ithel, retired, at your service,”
“One sec,” Stern said. He was carefully aiming the Qu’Eh weapon he’d obtained. Breathing carefully, he gently pressed the trigger. One of the arguing Qu’Eh fell back, stunned.
“Commander Stern, formerly of the USS Silverado,” he said, turning to shake her hand, “You’re SURE there’s no emergency exit or anything?”
“Just the public emergency beam-out system,”
“Which the Qu’Eh can track, or even redirect,” Rengs cut in. He held a Qu’Eh weapon in one hand and a glass jar of blue sauce in another.
There was a shout from outside as a squad of Qu’Eh troops charged the front door. Stern and Ithel dove behind the counter, Ithel coming up with a Starfleet phaser and Stern with his Qu’Eh weapon.
“Swiped it off your unconscious guy,” she said, pulling the trigger and stunning the first Qu’Eh to burst through the door.
“Nice move,” Stern said, stunning the next and ducking when a third opened fire. Rengs popped up from behind a table of melons and stunned him. A fourth fired down the center of the store, vaporizing a meat display screen and scorching the meat storage hidden behind it. The smell of charred meat filled the air.
“I don’t care mom, I’ll eat steak or chicken,” Stafford groaned.
“I don’t suppose you do it on the first date, do you?” Stern asked.
“What, sex?” Ithel giggled, firing on another Qu’Eh, “Who needs the first date?”
Stern turned and planted a full kiss on her, firing his disruptor over the counter as he did.
“By the Prophets,” Rengs cursed, throwing a rude gesture in Stern’s direction. He ducked as a Qu’Eh blast blew up one of the melons, showering him in goop.
“Margarita time!” Stafford muttered.
“Somebody shut him up!” Jeffery cursed, trying to get a bead on the next Qu’Eh soldier. He missed, the shot hitting a reflective store sign across the road, reflecting back and causing a can of Matrian coffee to explode, showering Jeffery in fragrant powder. Stafford’s eyes popped open.
“Coffee time?” he asked, his voice suddenly loud and clear.
“Oh, aye,” Jeffery said, trying to shake coffee grounds out of his hair, “He won’t wake up for the explosions, or the gunfire, but the smell of coffee-“
“Less talk, more shooting!” Stern snapped.
“Hmmmm, a man of action, in and out of the bedroom,” Ithel said, “Federation membership has perks!”
“Stern’s one of a kind, ma’am,” Rengs said, firing repeatedly at the onrushing Qu’Eh.
“No he’s not!” Stafford said. He’d joined Stern and Ithel behind the counter and was adding his weapons fire to theirs. Marsden was blinking his eyes, one hand fumbling for the weapon that was no longer at his side, but in Ithel’s hand.
“I assure you, madam, that if it’s a little no-strings-attached fun you’re after, the Federation is more than happy to offer its, I mean, my services,” Stafford said.
“Sir, with all due respect, you’re cock-blocking me,” Stern snapped, firing repeatedly.
“Hey, I’m the Captain here!”
Jeffery jumped out from behind his shelf, grabbed Stafford by the back of his borrowed jacket and hauled him back.
“The only thing more disturbin’ than watchin’ Stern mack on her is watchin’ YE try ta move in on his turf!” Jeffery snapped.
“Is there no back way out of this place?” Stafford demanded.
“Sir, respectfully, don’t you think we would have left while you were unconscious if there were?” Stern called.
“I don’t know, this is the security team that thought 9/11 was a chain of convenience stores!”
Kreklor and Dar’ugal exchange a glance that simply said ‘this is why we don’t want to be running things’ then returned to firing their weapons at the Qu’Eh.
There was a brief lull in the assault. The Qu’Eh tried firing two more grenades in, but this time Stern simply vaporized them before they could detonate.
“They’re lining up for a big rush,” Simmons called, “Or they’re getting ready to do the ‘Macarena’!”
“Stern, this isn’t working!” Stafford said, “We’ve got to call Yanick for beam-out!”
“They’ll trace the beam right to the ship!” Stern shot back.
“We’ve got sensor shielding!” Stafford shot back, “If we move fast enough, they’ll lose track of us!”
“Who’s piloting, Yanick?”
Stern thought for a moment.
“Yeah, she likes putting the pedal to the metal, doesn’t she?”
“Too much so,” Jeffery snapped, “Ah’ve always got ta fix the…oh….that’s a good thing here,”
On the outskirts of Matronus, Yanick and T’Parief were…involved.
It had actually started off as another argument. Yanick was busy giving T’Parief hell for not informing her that he was about to leave on a dangerous mission. T’Parief was accusing Yanick of being controlling and insisting that he, as a grown alpha-male, had the right to do so. Yanick had shot back that T’Parief spent far too much time obeying Stafford and Jall to be an alpha-male, to which T’Parief firmly replied that he would NEVER obey Jall. And so on. Valtaic, sick of the whole thing, had locked himself in the rear cabin, placed a pair of plugs in his ears and taken a nap.
After an hour or so of arguing, Yanick and T’Parief fell in a quiet stalemate. Another hour passed, and boredom had set firmly in. Then Stafford had commed to inform them that he and Jeffery were going to go find the HT before they left, which would probably take a couple of hours.
Another hour or so of boredom later and their uniforms were scattered all over the cockpit. Anybody look in the front windows would have seen nothing more than T’Parief’s tail sticking up in the air as the craft rocked slightly on its landing pads.
“Stafford to Yanick,”
The rocking continued, the tail disappearing from sight.
“Stafford to T’Parief,”
Still, the craft continued moving. Suddenly the tail shot back into view and the movement stopped. Slowly, like a flag coming down at the end of the day, it lowered back out of view.
“STAFFORD TO YANICK OR T’PARIEF! WE’RE BEING SHOT AT AND NEED A BIT OF HELP OVER HERE!”
Suddenly, T’Parief’s head popped up over the display panel.
“We need beam out! Tell Yanick to take off on a random course as soon as we’re aboard!”
“You get dressed and run the transporter, I’ll hide the hockey gear!” Yanick said quickly.
“We’re lucky the Senousians had sports equipment in their replicator files,” T’Parief mused, pulling his pants on.
“Oh, I brought that. Just in case,”
T’Parief smiled, gave her a peck on the forehead, then ran back to the tiny transporter pad. He homed in on Stafford’s comm-badge, then energized. Jeffery and Stafford appeared on the pad.
“YANICK, GET MOVING!” Stafford shouted, “T’Parief, beam up the HT, and the Matrian next to Stern’s signal!”
He rushed into the cockpit, just as Yanick fired the anti-grav units. Stafford barely got a grip on a seatback. Behind him, he could hear Jeffery cursing and the transporter cycling again.
“GOGOGO!” he shouted, getting into the seat and reaching for the restraints. Instead, he came up with a huge pair of tighty-whities, complete with a tail-sized opening at the back.
“What the…EEEAUUUGGGHHHHH!!” he flung the offending garment away. It landed up near the window.
“What were you two DOING in here?” he snapped.
“What do you THINK?” Yanick snaped back, firing the anti-gravs again and sending the ship spiralling off on another heading.
The transporter cycled again.
“Anything on the sensors?” Stafford asked, trying to change the topic.
“You tell me, I’m trying to drive here!”
“Oh, right!” Stafford turned to the nearest console and started tapping at the unfamiliar Senousian controls, “Well, the Qu’Eh are already beamed troops to our landing site. I’ve got two ships coming in, but they don’t seem to have spotted us!”
Jeffery and Rengs rushed into the cockpit.
“Everybody’s up,” Jeffery said, “But Stern and T’Parief are fighting over who gets to come up here and run the weapons,”
“Not anymore,” T’Parief said, climbing into the cockpit. He was nearly knocked on his ass as Yanick fired the anti-grav units again.
“Hey, the Qu’Eh ships are turning to follow us!” Stafford said, suddenly riveted to the console. Yanick fired the anti-grav again. Stafford watched the display for another minute.
“Ok, they’re…no, wait. They’re changing course!”
The ship shook from a near weapons miss.
“They must’ve detected us!”
“Nay!” Jeffery said firmly, “The shielding is too good for Qu’Eh sensors!”
“Uh oh,” Rengs muttered, “The collars!”
Jeffery was on him instantly, a tricorder in one hand, the other probing the thin ‘loyalty collar’ the Qu’Eh had fitted him with.
“What is going on?” Valtaic demanded, running out of the rear cabin to find the ship with several more people in it than he’d expected.
“We found some hitchhikers,” Jeffery said, staring at Rengs’ collar. “Tracking device?” he demanded.
“Explosives. To make sure we show up for work.”
“We’re pretty sure we took out the transmitter array!” Rengs said quickly, “Unless they have the codes duplicated, they were lost when Quali-Tech blew up!”
“The Qu’Eh are anal-retentive corporate types!” Stafford shouted, clutching the console as Yanick fired the anti-grav again, “OF COURSE they have a backup!”
“It’ll just take them time to find it!” Jeffery said.
“They’re doing a s**tty job tracking us,” Yanick piped in, “They’re half a minute behind my manoeuvres!”
“Tracking and Assault are separate departments!” Rengs said, trying to hold still as Jeffery manipulated his collar, “They’re probably just sending our position via inter-departmental memo!”
“Valtaic, can’t you jam the signals with an energy thingy?” Stafford asked.
“If you are comfortable with the risk that I may inadvertently cause a detonation, or interfere with the ships systems,” Valtaic shrugged.
“Never mind,” Stafford said quickly.
“Ah think Ah got it!” Jeffery said. Rengs collar clicked, then came off.
Then it started beeping.
“Um, TRANSPORTER!” Rengs shouted. The two of them ran back. There was a chiming sound, then the ship bucked from an external explosion.
“One down,” Jeffery called up, “A few to go!”
There was a gurgle in Rengs’ stomach.
“Ugh,” he muttered, “Must have been something I ate,”
Aboard the Qu’Eh flagship, Chairman P’tarek was leaning back in his leather office chair, eyes closed as he listened to the reports coming in.
“We’ve lost all the tracking collars,” an operator spoke into his ear, “Last known signal was just off the coast. But, on the plus side, we finally received the detonation command codes from the Quali-Tech backup computer!”
“Switch to the internal trackers!” P’tarek snapped, “And expect a two-point quality deduction! You should have done that already!”
There was a moment of silence.
“Chairman, I’m reading three signals over the ocean,” the operator said.
“Dear lord!” Jeffery cried, watching as a very full barf bag disappeared into the Senousian vessel’s matter reclamator, “We bloody borrowed this ship, ye know!”
“It’s not the ship,” Rengs muttered, wiping his mouth, “It’s the pilot!”
“F**K YOU, RENGS!” Yanick snapped, all her attention focused on keeping the ship from being detected. There was another jolt as the anti-gravity unit kicked in, punting the ship up and between two clouds like a football between goal posts.
“I think…I’m gonna…BLLLAAAARRRGGGHHHH!”
“Marsden just popped,” Stern reported, “And I’m…I’m…” he forced himself to keep his heaving lunch down, “I’m OK for now, but who the hell is plotting this course?”
The matter reclamator whined again.
“Down to two signals, Chairman,”
“They must have found the transmitters we placed in the food!” P’tarek fumed, “But how? They were miniscule!”
“These Starfleets are far more clever and devious than we gave them credit for!” P’tarek fumed.
“I’m holding this in, dammit!” Stern groaned, clutching his stomach as the ship bucked again.
“That a challenge, meanie?” Yanick called back.
“What did I…urk…do?” Stern asked.
“I’M PLOTTING THE COURSE, DUMBASS!” she shouted. This time she added a barrel roll to the antigrav hop, spinning the ship on its axis. Stern reached frantically for a vomit bag.
“We’ve lost the signal, Chairman,” the operator reported.
“You’re fired,” P’tarek said, changing the channel before the operator’s death scream could hurt his ear. He rose, then move to a wall-mounted display off to one side of his office. On it, the Federation ship’s route was traced, the jagged line leaving Matronus and zigzagging on an uneven course towards…well, towards almost anything in the equatorial region of the next continent, or beyond.
Closer to Matronus, smaller lines squiggled through the city. Most of them, sadly, merely followed the transit routes to and from the homes of Quali-Tech ‘employees’. But a few of them, including the Starfleets signals, led deeper, into the web of tunnels under the city before vanishing due to the thick rock.
P’tarek had purposefully avoided using or searching those tunnels. Wherever Stafford and Anselia were hiding, it wasn’t right under Matronus. He had hoped that by watching the Starfleets carefully, they would lead him to bigger and more interesting fish. And now, they’d slipped through his grasp!
“Operator,” spoke a new voice in his ear, responding to the slightest twitch of an ear- tendril.
“Send teams into the tunnels under Matronus immediately,” P’tarek ordered, “Focus on corrective action, but employment termination is authorized. Likelihood of high-value assets is minimal.”
P’tarek returned his attention to the map in front of him. A pair of hazy lines now projected the ship’s course, based on the movements it made before contact was lost. The projected cone covered a lot of ground. Two smaller cities near the other continent’s coast fell just within the cone, as did a number of deserted cities, tracts of unused farmland, a rainforest that had spread to cover what may have once been more farmland and…
…and, off to one side, a very large desert. A deserted city was off near the edge, but it was the desert that held P’tarek’s attention.
He tapped a few buttons, focusing in the sensor systems. Nothing…nothing…nothing…minor energy spike…nothing…wait?
P’tarek re-ran the scan, his eyes searching for whatever that spike had been.
“Solar activity?” he muttered to himself. Maybe.
“I want a flyby of the,” he paused, looking at the map, “Evendra Desert. If anything is there, I want to know about it,”
“At once, Chairman,” replied the operator.
“Welcome to your new home away from home,” Stafford said, leading the HT out of the Senousian ship, glad for the recycled air of the underground installation as opposed to the vomit smell of the ship, “The Matrians have all moved to the center island, but since you guys are going to be operating outside I thought we’d find a place somewhere near the hanger for you to setup shop.
“There’s an island?” Simmons asked, bug-eyed.
“And a lake,” Yanick said. She was, by far, the most cheerful and least nauseous of the group.
“Can we go swimming?”
“The whole inner cavern is flooded with preservative gasses,” Stafford said sharply, “C’mon, let’s head to the tram station and I’ll give you the tour.”
They walked through the twisting route to the tram station. Stern and the HT noted that the corridors seemed fairly standard for a ground-based installation, starship, space station…hell, whatever. When they entered the transit station, Stern looked around. Something about the chamber bothered him…the polished stone floor, the dim lighting, the two crossover bridges spanning the width of the tracks, up above the tram.
They boarded the tram, which immediately took off down a curving tunnel before turning sharply left and picking up speed. Outside the windows, everything was shrouded in total blackness.
“We still don’t know what the hell’s out there,” Stafford complained, “For all we know, the lake stretches this far out. Somebody figured the bridges were supposed to be easily defended, y’know?”
Stern shook his head.
“Didn’t you say the outer ring had far more living space and more facilities than the island?” he said.
“Then that doesn’t really make sense, especially since the place seemed to have been built with stealth in mind.” Rengs said.
“I guess.” Stafford shrugged.
The tram had exited the tunnel and pulled into the transit hub. Stern’s frown deepened when he saw the cavernous ceiling, supported by marbled stone pillars that were barely visible in the dim light. Nearby, one track led further underground. A platform on the inner ring lay empty, while their outer ring platform was still littered with Starfleet supply crates. Stern craned his neck, looking at the elaborate, glass-walled staircase and the glass-walled crossover bridge extending from the staircase to the inner wall. He shook his head.
Something wasn’t right.
Before he could say anything, Ensign Burke came running down the stairs.
“Sir! You’re back!”
“What’s new, Ensign?” Stafford asked.
“We just got a comm from Dr. Wowryk!” Burke panted, out of breath from jogging from the command tower turbolifts, “The Qu’Eh are sweeping the tunnels! They barely made it out!”
“That’s good,” Stafford said, “That they escaped, I mean,”
Stern was shaken from his musings.
“I think the Qu’Eh are finished toying with the rebels,” he said.
“I think,” Stafford said slowly, “That the rebels are finished toying around with the Qu’Eh,”
“Hey, that wasn’t bad, was it?”
“Sir,” Stern said politely, “Now isn’t the time to be pleased with yourself.”
“Yeah,” Stafford agreed, “I guess I better go meet with Anselia and the Council. Let them know what’s going on,”
They turned and started the long walk up to the turbolifts.
“Still, that was pretty good, right?