Author: Brendan Chris
“You dragged me all the way back to this end of the city because your bots are building a ship again,” Major Dekaire grumbled as she looked out the windows into Shipyard Six and the nearly complete NX-class ship currently under construction, “An antique ship, none the less,”
“I need you to get them to stop,” Sylvia said very politely.
“They’re your bots,” Dekaire gave a Matrian shrug, “You can tell them,”
“Well…I’ve sort of…lost control of them,” Sylvia bit her lip, “They think that because you told them to do something useful with all that material, well, they sort of inferred that they could build whatever they wanted,”
“Uh-huh,” Dekaire turned towards the exit, “Come, Simon,”
“What? Aren’t you going to help?” Jeffery asked.
“Help? She doesn’t need my ‘help’,” Dekaire almost spat, “They have software. She IS software. She has access, she can just re-write their code,”
“Sylvia?” Jeffery asked.
“Simon, you don’t brainwash kids when they misbehave!” Sylvia said, wringing her hands.
“They’re robots,” Dekaire said as she walked out the door.
“God, Ah hope Chris and the gang are having a better time of it,” Jeffery groaned as he looked between Sylvia and Dekaire. Sylvia was giving him a sort of pleading, expectant expression. Dekaire was simply walking out the door.
“Um…” Jeffery gulped.
“Oh, just go,” Sylvia sighed, “I can’t compete with her vagina,”
Jeffery blushed, then ran.
Sylvia brew out a simulated breath.
“But it still would have been nice if you’d helped,” she said to the empty room.
“GOD-DAMNED MOTHERF**KER!” Yanick was cursing as she tried to manoeuvre the ungainly Qu’Eh vessel around the crowded space on the outskirts of the Kallar star system, “MOVE, you C**KS**KERS!”
“Uh, Trish, can you tone it down a bit? The flight recorder’s running,” Stafford squirmed in his seat, then turned to Valtaic, “Right?”
“No,” Valtaic said bluntly.
“Well, I’d still like to be somewhat profession-WHOAH!”
Yanick cursed again as the ship bucked.
“That was not a collision, we have been fired upon!” T’Parief said loudly.
“Return fire!” Stafford ordered.
The Qu’Eh ship rocked again, sparks flying from several consoles.
“Weapons are offline,” T’Parief sounded almost conversational now, “Honourable death by ramming?”
“There are far too many ships for that to be effective,” Fifebee pointed out.
“They are still not responding to hails,” Valtaic added.
“Shit,” Stafford muttered, “Any more technobabble ideas?” he asked Fifebee.
“You are not too ashamed?” she asked.
“I suppose you get used to it,”
“Engineering to bridge…uh, I mean Management Complex,” Lt Sage’s voice came over the comm, “I’m getting a funny error here that says…hold one,” there was the sound of beeping, “Uh, that ‘the warp propulsion department is about to suffer a drastic reduction in quality’. Do you guys know what that means?”
“Jall?” Stafford asked, the ship rocking again as weapons fire crashed against the hull.
“Well, either it means that they’ve all called in sick,” Jall began.
“Warning,” the flat-voiced computer announced, “This vessel will soon complete a high-quality energetic reversion to base elements. This exciting business opportunity is best enjoyed from the Observation and Life-Prolongation Pods available to our valued managements staff. Please complete your quality evaluations of your employees, prepare notifications to next of kin and depart the vessel in an orderly fashion. Finest quality to you all!”
“Or we’re about to explode,” Jall finished glumly.
“Shit,” Stafford said again, “OK people, let’s evacuate! T’Parief, get over to the bridge and get Beta Shift and the HT out of here. Valtaic, make sure Sage and the guys in Engineering get to the runabouts. The rest of you-“
As Stafford struck his leadership pose and barked orders, Fifebee’s hand tapped a button on her console.
With a shimmer of transporter sparks, Stafford found himself materializing next to Yanick on a runabout transporter pad. His jaw dropped for about two seconds, before the computer prompted him to get off the pad so the next traveller could materialize.
“I didn’t get to finish my leadership sounds,” Stafford said, sounding disappointed.
“You can do it again later,” Yanick said, jumping into the pilot seat and bringing the runabout systems online. Stafford looked out the nearest window and could see the runabout next to them coming to life, Lt Cmdr Quintaine’s head visible in the matching window.
“That just took all the fun out of the evacuation,” T’Parief said after he materialized.
“I know, right?” Stafford agreed.
The ship shook again.
“On the other hand,” Fifebee offered, “I believe the Qu’Eh ship will explode in approximately thirty seconds. Without my initiative, we would have died,”
“We still might!” Yanick muttered, waiting for the hanger doors to finish opening.
“That’s everyone,” Jall said as he and Valtiac materialized.
“Go, Yanick!” Stafford snapped.
The runabout rushed out into space, quickly followed by three identical craft. Fifebee’s evacuation program had beamed the Hazardous Team into the second runabout, Beta Shift into the third and the various other random crew-members into the fourth.
“Oh wow,” Jall said as he took the copilot seat and looked out the big front windows of the runabout, “That is a LOT of ships!”
The Silverado officers had expected to drop their borrowed Qu’Eh ship out of warp in a nice, quiet part of the Kallar star system, make a slow approach to the planet and figure out just why the Qu’Eh were leaving the Kallars alone instead of enslaving them. Instead, they’d dropped out of warp to find themselves surrounded by hundreds of starships. Looking out the window, Stafford could get a clear look at them now.
Most of them were cylindrical-shaped craft that basically looked like primitive old nuclear submarines. It was an easy shape to build in, requiring a lot less advanced engineering and construction expertise than more complex shapes. It was also cheap. Each ship had three boxy nacelles spaced around the rear quarter, and a single impulse engine mounted on the rear. They were big, too. Each ship was easily twice the length of Silverado’s secondary hull.
“Primitive looking things,” Stafford commented, right as the Qu’Eh vessel behind them exploded. The viewport darkened immediately, preventing him from being instantly blinded by the radiation. Seconds later, the runabout heaved like a boat in rough seas. T’Parief had taken the small tactical station, and Stafford was certain the thing was going to pop free of the deck as T’Parief held tight.
“Is there anywhere we can hide while their sensors are scrambled from that explosion?” Jall demanded.
“I would love to tell you, but…” Fifebee tapped her panel.
“Aw shit,” Jall face-palmed.
“Indeed. Our sensors are also scrambled. By that explosion.”
“Four brand-new runabouts can probably do better against those clunky things than a Qu’Eh ship, right?” Stafford asked.
“Those weren’t the ships that were firing on us,” Yanick called, still concentrating on her piloting, “Weren’t you paying attention?”
“She is correct,” T’Parief was reviewing sensor footage, “In fact, they are not even armed.”
“WHAT?” Stafford exclaimed, moving to see, “Then who attacked us?”
“Them,” T’Parief brought up an image of a ship that was similar to the first craft, in the way that a shark is similar to a carp. This ship followed a similar design and definitely looked like it had been built on a budget. But it was also smaller, leaner and sported not only four impulse engine outlets, but also protrusions that the runabout sensors had identified as weapons systems. Right before the Qu’Eh ship had exploded and rendered everybody in the area blind.
“Sensors had detected roughly four hundred of the unarmed ships,” T’Parief went on, “And twenty two of the attack ships,”
“Twenty two?” Stafford asked.
“So much for outgunning them,” Jall called from the copilot seat.
“I agree,” T’Parief cracked his knuckles, “But now we can ram FOUR ships instead of-“
“Nobody’s ramming anybody!” Stafford snapped, “Look, we’ve got to be able to talk to them, right? You’re sure the hailing frequencies are open?”
“I am certain,” T’Parief looked more than slightly annoyed at being questioned, “There has been no reply.” The runabout shook again. “And our shields are now at 75%.”
“The interference from the explosion has faded,” Fifebee added, unnecessarily.
“Anything else you can get on those ships?”
“One moment,” Fifebee tapped at panel.
“Wait, are you using the standard hail?” Jall asked.
“Yes.” T’Parielf replied. What else would he be using, really?
Stafford was about to ask why Jall was asking stupid questions when his first officer hammered a thumb down on his ‘transmit’ button.
“We’re not Qu’Eh, we’re not here to hurt anybody, please stop shooting at us!” Jall yelled into the comm.
There was several moments of silence, then several more weapons were fired at the runabouts.
“I don’ know how you thought that would help,” Stafford complained while Yanick resumed cursing.
“Have your HEARD the actual auto-hail voice?’ Jall screwed up his face and raised his voice in a parody of a standard Starfleet computer, “This is the runabout St-Lawrence, requesting communications. Beepity-boop-bloop-bleep! Take me to your central processor!”
“I do not find that amusing,” Fifebee said hotly.
“Well, at least they thought about it for a minute,” Jall shrugged, “So I bought us some time.”
“Which has already been wasted,” Valtaic pointed out.
“And in any case, there are no life-sign readings on any of the ships,” Fifebee added, “They are unmanned. Though they clearly are capable of carrying a crew,”
“Details,” Jall waved a hand, “I still expect to see this on my next annual review,”
“Oh, you WILL!” Stafford replied darkly.
“Permission to return fire?” T’Parief asked calmly, satisfied that the niceties of requesting NOT to be shot had been properly observed.
“You mean you weren’t already?” Stafford demanded, “Yes! Shoot back!”
T’Parief tapped his panel, sending the runabouts relatively weak phasers crashing against the enemy shields. And, surprisingly, through them. The enemy ships abruptly broke off, as if stung by an unexpected bee.
“Full impulse to the planet!” Stafford pointed at the sudden opening in the enemy formation.
Yanick sent the small ship darting forward, the other three runabouts right on her tail.
The runabouts took up a standard orbit around Kallar IV. Not a single ship actually followed them, instead returning to the unmanned fleet after the runabout crossed the orbit of the outermost planet. Kallar IV itself seemed to be an almost completely defenceless planet, although Fifebee had detected a few scattered planetary defence shields going up over what were presumably key locations on the surface.
“Foolish” T’Parief shook his head, “Shielding only your most important assets simply tells us what to shoot at first,”
“If, you know, we were invading bad guys,” Jall said, “Which we aren’t.”
“Fifebee, can you send the sensor readings we have so far back to Haven?” Stafford requested, “We’re here to study things, after all.”
“No,” Fifebee replied immediately.
“I sort of meant that to be an order,” Stafford said slowly.
Fifebee’s face seemed to shift slightly, hair darkening and ears elongating slightly.
“It is illogical to assume I am being insubordinate, given my previous history,” she said in a clipped tone, “We are, in fact, being jammed,”
“Fascinating,” Valtaic said, “I do not believe I have seen you channel a personality since I joined the crew. Most interesting.”
Fifebee shook her head, her features returning to normal.
“It hasn’t happened in a while,” she admitted.
“Jammed?” Stafford prompted.
“Correct,” Fifebee took a (simulated) breath and tapped her panel, “I cannot open a channel on any of the standard frequencies.”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Jall said.
“A hidden fleet that shot up a Qu’Eh ship but stopped shooting as soon as we shot at them,” Stafford scratched his head, “And now they don’t want us talking to anybody. But they don’t seem to mind that we’re hanging out over their plant,”
“Two hidden fleets,” Valtaic spoke calmly, “One hostile, one passive. Both automated, and both very poorly constructed. What might we deduce from that?”
“That it’s time to go get some questions answered,” Stafford said, “T’Parief, find us the most heavily shielded building on the planet. That should be their government complex. We’ll beam down, ask some questions, buy time for the runabouts to run some scans, then get the hell back to Haven.”
The most heavily shielded building was not, in fact, a government complex.
“What does that say?” Stafford demanded, pointing at the sign near the building entrance. Lt Burke tapped his tricorder, trying to find a translation matrix. Lt Comd Stern and Lt Rengs were carefully scanning the area and Stafford, Jall and Valtaic stood facing the large, elaborate building they had found.
“I think it says ‘Robellus Transceiver Terminal 1’,” Burke said.
“Robellus? I’ve heard that word before, haven’t I?” Stafford said.
“You have,” Stern spoke up, his eyes not leaving the scope of his phaser rifle, “It’s one of the Qu’Eh’s biggest clients. It’s a telecommunications company. I took calls from their customers while I was…employed by them.”
“Wait, no,” Jall frowned, “I’ve heard of them too. You can get them in…in some of the sectors near the Beta Quadrant,”
“Why the hell would a Federation company have a building on an unknown, unexplored planet?” Stafford wondered.
“Do we know they’re actually a Federation company?” Valtaic asked.
“I’m pretty sure they aren’t, but if we could actually find their leader, maybe we can figure it out,” Jall shrugged.
“Stafford to T’Parief,” Stafford tapped his comm badge, “Let’s try this again.”
The central government of the planet was not, as it turned out, one of the buildings protected by a shield. After beaming to six different locations (including two more smaller Robellus re-broadcast buildings, three buildings for companies they had never heard of, and a Ferengi delivery service) they finally found a local Kallar and did the equivalent of the old ‘take me to your leader’ routine. The man pointed out the planetary capitol on a map, then proceeded to run away, shouting that “Bontanta is on, and if I miss it it’s going to be hell to pay!”.
A quick scan and another quick transporter trip found the away team standing outside the planetary government complex, a rather run-down looking collection of domed, stone buildings. The stone construction meant they would probably stand for thousands of years without any serious work…and the appearance of the buildings hinted that they would probably have to. The stone was worn and pitted. The windows were dirty and debris had built up along the base of the building. Leaves, dirt, a few pieces of garbage.
“Somebody doesn’t have much of a landscaping budget,” Jall said, pointing at a dry, desiccated flower garden. There were no flowers, just barren dirt and several clumps of weeds.
The streets were almost empty. The few Kallars they saw appeared to be fairly well dressed at first glance, though a second glance revealed once fancy but now worn, threadbare clothing that had been patched several times. They were humanoid…extremely so. Slender, smooth limbs, completely devoid of hair, showing soft features and a complete lack of distinguishing bumps or ridges. Their pale skin had no freckles, wrinkles or other imperfections. Their eyes were wide and clear, with the barest suggestion of a nose between them. Their mouths were thin-lipped, their chins perfectly rounded below them. The extreme lack of features, from the lack of eyebrow ridge to the perfectly smooth ears made them look almost like cartoons of actual humanoids.
Burke had his tricorder pointed at a nearby Kallar and was tapping away, but the Kallar saw him and bolted away.
“Wait!” Burke called, “No! I’m…I’m not going to hurt you, I just want….ugh.”
“We’ll find another one,” Stafford shrugged.
They entered the central government building, expecting to see the usual hustle and bustle of a planetary government busy, well, governing. Instead, they found the building completely empty.
“Where the hell IS everybody?” Stafford demanded.
“On the ships we found, after all?” Jall suggested, “There were a lot of them, after all,”
“No, I’m definitely getting life signs,” Burke said, tapping at his tricorder, “There are a couple in this building…that way,” he pointed.
They wandered down a large hallway. The stone walls were in better condition than the building exterior, but something about them still bothered the away team. It was Jall who finally figured it out.
“The fixtures,” he said, pointing up at a cheap, gaudy-looking chandelier, “Look at that garbage,”
Valtaic arched an eyebrow, then dismissed the conversation as irrelevant. Stafford, on the other hand, frowned.
“What do you mean? It just looks like another crappy piece of cheap crap,” he shrugged.
“Exactly!” Jall said, “Nobody with an ounce of class would be caught dead with THAT in their home,” Jall pointed at a wall scone that didn’t seem to fit properly in the wall, “Or THAT. If I had to guess, I’d say that they used to have much nicer stuff, but it’s been replaced with this trash,”
“I think I saw that one in a Dillon’s catalogue,” Burke started.
“Don’t be stupid,” Jall cut him right off, “Dillon’s wouldn’t sell that if their…” Jall trailed off.
“What?” Stafford demanded.
“Burke has seen it before,” Jall said, “So have I. On Chairman P’Tarek’s Qu’Eh flagship,”
Stern instinctively brought his phaser rifle up.
“I thought these people didn’t work for the Qu’Eh,” he said, his voice sounding worried.
“They aren’t supposed to,” Stafford agreed.
“This does not mean they are associated with the Qu’Eh,” Valtaic apparently had decided the conversation was worth participating in, “Only that they purchase from the same suppliers. What might we deduce from that?”
“What is with you and all the deductive crap all of a sudden?” Jall asked.
“Lt Yanick recently introduced me to an old Terran television program called ‘Sherlock’,” Valtaic explained, “I found the main character to be most intriguing. Thought I do not understand why he referred to himself as a ‘high-functioning sociopath’.”
“Right. So what’s your deductive point?”
“What drives the Qu’Eh in their purchases?” Valtaic asked.
“They’re cheap,” Jall said immediately, “Spending too much money on decent furnishings just doesn’t make ‘good business sense’. They want stuff that looks good, well, good to them. But they don’t want to spend any money on it.”
“So the Kallars are cheap?” Stafford frowned, peering through another door. The office he found was empty, and Burke was walking in the opposite direction with his tricorder still in hand, “That doesn’t explain why we can’t find any of them!”
“That is one possibility,” Valtaic agreed.
“What’s the other?”
“Is it not clear?” Valtaic gestured out a window at the decayed gardens outside the building, “The other possibility is that the Kallars are simply broke,”
In orbit of the planet, Yanick, Fifebee and Wowryk sat in the runbout cockpit, watching as the computer obediently scanned the planet and recorded the resulting data into the computer.
“It is a standard Class-M planet,” Fifebee summarized as the initial scan was completed, “The civilization is roughly 23rd-Century Federation. I have detected several small orbital facilities, but no shipyards capable of building any of the ships in their fleet. Though I believe the gas giant closer to the edge of the system would be a logical place for the fleet to have been built,”
“But no idea why their ships wouldn’t follow us here?” Wowryk asked.
“Either their programming detected we had no hostile intent,” Fifebee said, “Or whomever is controlling them believes we are not a threat,”
“What else?” Wowryk asked.
“Are you asking as the Chief Medical Officer or First Officer?” Fifebee asked.
“I’m asking as the senior officer on this runabout!” Wowryk snapped.
“It’s a fair question,” Yanick spoke up.
“WHAT?” Wowryk demanded.
“Well, you HAVE been a lot more commanding lately,” Yanick shrugged, turning in her seat, “And Fifebee has a point: why would the head doctor care about what the weird alien ships are doing?”
Wowry sucked her teeth for a moment.
“One of us has to be in charge, right? And…well, Stafford didn’t really say who,”
“Don’t think he really had to,” Yanick smiled, turning back to her panel, “You go, Noel!”
Wowryk was slightly taken aback. If anybody was going to encourage her in, well, everything, it would be Yanick. No surprise there. But she’d turned down the chance to command Haven. And she had been more than happy to give Jall the First Officer slot back. Her place was in Sickbay, tending to the sick and healing the injured. Right?”
Well, there was no Sickbay at the moment. So why not make herself useful?
“The other reason the ships may not be defending the planet,” Fifebee spoke without prompting, “would be if remaining here was dangerous for some reason. More dangerous than simply leaving us alone,”
“Are WE in any danger?” Wowryk asked.
“I don’t see how we could be,” Fifebee shrugged, “But I am still scanning,”
“Any luck getting a message to Hav…I mean, to Starbase 341?”
“No,” Fifebee replied, “But I do not believe we are being jammed, as I first thought,”
“But we can’t get a message through?”
“We may have gotten a message through,” Fifebee corrected, “But even if we had, the starbase cannot acknowledge it, or contact us,”
“What I thought was jamming appears to simply be an unusually high number of powerful communications channels,” Fifebee said, “Bandwidth on all standard frequencies as well as many non-standard frequencies, is simply full. Even the primitive electromagnetic bands are full.”
“So crank up the power!” Yanick said, “Even I remember communications classes from the Academy!”
“The issue is not with our power levels. Imagine,” she said, “that we are part of a crowd. Everybody is shouting, and you wish to speak to somebody outside that crowd. Now, if you shout in their direction it is possible that they might hear you. However, nothing they say, no matter how loud, could possibly overpower the idiot next to you yelling in your ear.”
“Oh yeah, I get that all the time at the bar,” Yanick nodded and turned back to her panel.
Wowryk wasn’t the bar-going type, but she still got the gist.
“So what are they sending?” she asked.
Fifebee gestured to an empty panel.
“I am occupied. Perhaps I can find a frequency that is at least clear enough for us to use for limited data transmission. But you may sample various transmissions from that panel.”
Wowryk cracked her knuckles.
“Hopefully it isn’t too sinful,” she said.
“OK, there are several life-signs in that room,” Burke said, pointing at a pair of double doors at the very end of the hall.
“Why couldn’t you just tell us to go to the very end of the hall right from the beginning?” Stafford asked.
Stafford was about to push open the doors when Stern pulled him back.
“You know that as the Captain you should actually be on the ship right now, not down here possibly getting shot at, right?” Stern said.
“Oh come on, nobody but Picard ever bothered to listen to that stupid rule!” Stafford objected.
“Maybe that’s how he’s lived to get so old,” Jall said.
“Hey, you’re the guy that’s supposed to be risking his life for me,” Stafford pointed out.
“Hmm. Right. Carry on,” Jall said.
Stern pushed the door open and quickly surveyed the room. When he came back, he had a look on his face that none of the other officers could quite read.
“It’s safe,” he said, “And there are Kallars in there.” he bit his lip, “But I don’t think you’re going to like what they’re doing,”
“Why?” Jall asked immediately, “Is it an orgy?”
“I doubt it,” Stafford sighed, pinching his nose, “You’d like that,”
“Not if they were fat,” Jall shrugged.
“It’s not an orgy,” Stern said, “They…well, see for yourself.
Stafford carefully walked into the room, noticed the half-dozen or so Kallars.
“You,” he said slowly, “have GOT to be kidding me,”
“Silence!” one of the Kallars barked, “The Program must not be interrupted!”
“Wait for the commercials!”
“Ohhhh…” Jall’s jaw dropped, “They’re…they’re…”
“They are watching television,” Valtaic finished.
“You are not currently subscribed to this channel,” Wowryk frowned, looking at the message on her screen as she attempted to monitor one of the frequencies overpowering the runabout, “And on this one. And this one,”
“Try this band,” Fifebee pointed over her shoulder, then resumed her work.
“Oh, that’s better,” Wowryk said, “It’s not encrypted, or whatever.”
“What does it say?”
“Um…” Wowryk tied in a translation protocol, “It says ‘can you believe the stupid writing on this last episode? Whoever thought that getting Gelinda pregnant was going to help get the show renewed should be fired. Out of a cannon. Into a garbage pit.’.”
Fifebee suddenly lost interest in her sensor scans.
“And a reply,” Fifebee pointed at the screen, “Saying ‘just because it seems like lazy writing doesn’t mean it doesn’t fit well with the rest of the season story-arc’,”
“It’s just social media,” Yanick called, “People are talking about what they’re seeing on the holovision,”
“There is a reference tag,” Wowryk said “For something called ‘Fertile Fields’, only available on Channel 54,”
She tapped away, trying to find the elusive Channel 54.
“There’s a broadcast with that identifier,” she said. But when she attempted to access it, she just received the same ‘not currently subscribed’ error.
“Fifebee, you’re good with this stuff. Can’t you…I don’t know…hack something?” Wowryk asked.
Fifebee tapped away for a while, then the error cleared and an image appeared on the screen.
“Tired of the same old entertainment shows?” a cheerful, female voice asked.
“Well, I don’t know about-“ Wowryk started. The voice simply carried on as through she hadn’t spoken.
“Then you need to upgrade to Robellus Tango Plus!” the voice went on as a montage of scenes from various shows flashed over the screen, “The shows you love, on the channels you crave. And with our Customer Select Customer Service, you can be assured that you have the very best in customer service!” The montage stopped, leaving a nondescript, computer generated humanoid standing on a blank background.
“So, friend, may I sign you up for Tango Plus, your gateway to better entertainment?” the Kallar asked.
“Well, I don’t think-“ Wowryk said,
“Act now, and your first six months are half-price!” the figure encouraged.
The screen suddenly flashed in a psychedelic display of colours.
“Thank you for signing up for Robellus Tango Plus!” the figure smiled.
“Wait,” Fifebee said, “She didn’t…that wasn’t a yes!”
A slew of legal-looking jargon flooded the screen.
“You can slow that down and review it later,” the figure said, “But it basically means that our legal team has proven in court that ‘Maybe’ is the same as ‘Yes’.”
“Are you NUTS!?” Wowryk demanded.
“If you have a complaint, I would be happy to direct you to our complaints department,” the figure said, “Current hold time is 23.5 standard years,”
“We don’t want the service!” Yanick shouted, “Cancel us!”
Wowryk looked over to Yanick.
“You have to be tough with these people,” Yanick shrugged.
“Current hold times for Customer Retention are 43.8 standard years,” the figure said.
“We don’t want retention, just cancel us!” Yanick declared.
“We are sorry to…” the figure seemed to frown. Suddenly, the background flashed with red colours and a klaxon began sounding.
“Warning!” a computerized voice declared, “Non-approved transceiver detected! This is a violation of the Robellus Terms of Customer Usage. You must purchase an approved Robellus transceiver in order to use the Robellus Tango Plus service,”
“WE DON’T WANT YOUR SERVICE!” the three women shouted together.
“A surcharge of eight thousand credits will be added to your bill, to include the cost of the transceiver along with express priority shipping,” the figure said, “Now, where may I send that?”
Yanick reached over and slammed her hand down on the cutoff button.
“Why didn’t we just do that from the start?” Wowryk wondered. A panel suddenly started beeping.
“Energy surge from the planet!” Fifebee called, “One of the shielded buildings just launched an antimatter surface-to-space missile!”
“OK, make this quick,” the Kallar said, “The show’s going to be back on in a couple of minutes.”
“AND PUT THAT AWAY!” the Kallar almost shrieked as he pointed at Burke’s tricorder. He twisted to the side, almost like the sensor device was going to shoot him with a phaser beam or something, “Do you WANT to violate the terms of our usage agreement? Quit it!”
“Look, buddy, I’m a Starfleet Captain on a peaceful mission, and my crew and I just got shot up by your ships!” Stafford snapped, “So I don’t really care about your stupid show, and you damned well will tell me what’s going on here!”
“Put that away first! Our bodies must not be scanned!”
Jall waved at Burke to comply.
“Thank the Guide,” the Kallar breathed a sigh of relief, then looked back towards the viewscreen, “Oh, I haven’t seen this commercial before. That’s an interesting product idea,”
“Hey! You guys SHOT AT US!” Stafford snapped his fingers at the Kallar, trying to regain his attention, “You and your fleet destroyed the Qu’Eh ship we were supposed to be delivering here!”
“What fleet?” the Kallar appeare only moderately interested.
“The fleet in your Oort cloud!”
“We don’t have a fleet,” the Kallar huffed, “Something else must have blown up your Qu’Eh ship,”
“But the Qu’Eh are expecting that ship!” Stafford said, “They’re supposed to meet us here!”
“I’d like to help you, but what can I say?” the Kallar shrugged. The commercial on the screen behind him ended and he abruptly turned away.
“Just tell them you hit a subspace fibre bundle or something,” he said, “They’ll add it to your bill.”
And with that he left Stafford standing near the door.
Stafford rejoined Jall, Burke, Stern and Valtaic.
“I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to punch a world leader so badly,” Stafford admitted.
“Maybe you should have,” Jall shrugged, his eyes looking over to where the Kallars were raptly watching some sort of program about people whining about relationships or something, “It might get their attention,”
“I have a thought on that,” Burke said, tapping at his tricorder.
“Evasive, full impulse!” Yanick shouted, diving back at the helm and pulling the small runabout into motion, “Fifebee, tell the other runbouts to scatter!”
“The missile has locked on us,” Fifebee reported.
“I thought I was in command?” Wowryk complained.
“I can give myself orders right now, thanks Noel,” Yanick said.
The missile quickly cleared the atmosphere and began homing in on the runabout. Yanick pulled a hard turn to starboard and the missile zipped by. It reversed course and started towards the runabout again.
“Warp speed!” Wowryk called.
“In a brand new runabout this close to a planet?” Yanick asked, “Do you WANT to end up in a red wormhole?”
“Cheesy time distortions and a strange, laser-scanned looking spatial anomaly,” Fifebee advised her, “Happens sometimes when warp engines haven’t been properly broken in. Or when film-makers are desperate to add excitement.”
“Besides,” Yanick pulled the runabout abruptly upward, “This missile’s going to run out of fuel sooner or later, right?”
The missile was turning around to followed their last manoeuvre when it abruptly exploded. Fifebee examined the sensor footage.
“Or the Hazardous Team runabout could blow it up,” she said, “I believe Ensign Simmons is getting bored over there.”
“Hey, if it means we don’t blow up, then he can shoot all the missiles he wants,” Wowryk said.
“Ready?” Burke asked.
“Yup,” Stafford nodded.
“Not like there’s really anything you have to do,” Jall pointed out.
“Hey, the Kallars are the only people we’re trying to surprise,” Stafford said, “Not me.”
Burke tapped his tricorder and the television screen abruptly broke in a cloud of static.
The effect on the Kallars was immediate.
“WHAT HAPPENS TO BREE AND HANAN!!??”
One of them (not the leader) rushed forward and started fiddling with a small blue box beneath the screen. Another started jiggling a cable than ran towards a wall jack while a third actually thumped the top of the flat screen with one fist.
After a few minutes, they turned to the leader, their faces grim.
“We’re going to have to call,” one gulped, “Technical Support,”
The leader paled.
“Oh no,” he said.
Stafford stepped forward.
“Look, maybe we can help?” he offered.
“I doubt it,” the leader was already reaching for a communications device, “And besides, if we let a non-Robellus certified technician touch anything, it will void our warranty,”
“OK, look, we’re jamming your signal,” Jall stepped forward, “And until we get some answers, it’s going to stay jammed!”
There were looks of shock and horror all around the room.
“How COULD you!?”
“OK, OK,” the leader set the comm device aside, “Look, I am Prime Magistrate Watchum. Let us not be rash. Simply restore our television service, and you may depart unharmed.”
“Nothing is stopping us from departing unharmed already,” Valtaic pointed out.
“Hmmm?” Watchum reached over and tapped the side of his chair’s left arm. He had, Stafford realized, done the same earlier. Some sort of hidden alarm!
“Those security guards are late!” he snapped.
“We had to lay them off,” one of the other Kallars said, “So we could afford the Tango Elite package in the lavatory,”
“Oh, right,” Watchum signed, “No security guards. Hmmm. Very well. State your demands.”
“What the hell is going on here?” Stafford demanded.
“You’re messing up our TV time is what’s going on,” one of the other Kallars said angrily.
“Why the fleet?” Jall asked, pushing forward, “Why shoot at us? Why do the Qu’Eh leave you alone instead of enslaving you?”
Watchum touched his fingers together, moving them in an odd motion. The Kallar equivalent of a sigh? Irritation?
“I still do not know this fleet you speak of,” he said, “The last fleet the Kallar people owned was built as an evacuation fleet. It bankrupted us to commission it, and the contractors never actually delivered it. That was over a century ago. What was the last question? Oh yes. The Qu’Eh.”
“They come by now and then, they check on the Robellus buildings, and they leave. Oh, and they always have us fill out some quality surveys. We don’t know why.”
“You’re SURE nobody delivered this evacuation fleet of yours?” Jall asked.
“Don’t ask me, I’m not a century old!” Watchum said, “But if they had, would we still be here? It was an EVACTUATION fleet for cable’s sake! And it bankrupted us, for no good cause! It was two generations before we could get high definition service back! Imagine, in this era, watching low-resolution television!”
“Why were your ancestors evacuating?” Valtaic asked.
“Why, Robellus and our other creditors, of course,” he said, “The cost of our global television services is over three quarters of our planetary product! Our civilization is deteriorating, and those evil telecommunications companies are to blame!”
He made a third gesture with his hands, again meaning anything from ‘what a pleasant day’ to ‘oh dear, I must move my bowels at once’.
“Now please,” he almost begged, “Turn the TV back on! We’re missing critical plot points!”
Stafford and Jall watched in almost horror as the Kallars watched the ridiculous show. Even worse, half of them were pulling out personal communications devices and, near as they could tell, talking about the stupid thing with others on some sort of social media. The Silverado officers had been forgotten seconds after the signal had resumed, and at least two aids who had attempted to bring in official-looking documents had been waved away.
“Uh…sirs? Can you take a look at this?” Burke tilted his tricorder towards the two senior officers.
“Um…interesting,” Stafford said after a moment spent looking at the flickering display, “Most interesting,”
“You have no idea what you’re looking at, do you?” Jall crossed his arms.
“And you do?”
Jall looked at the screen.
“Oh, that’s easy,”
“Yeah?” Stafford also crossed his arms, “Then what does it mean?”
“Well…it’s showing the Kallar life-sign readings,” Jall said.
“Well even I can see that!”
As the two continued bickering, Valtaic stepped over and glanced at the screen.
“Their life signs…some sort of strange energy reading. And these two, they seem to have started phasing out of our space-time continuum, then stabilized,” he said.
Jall and Stafford abruptly stopped arguing.
“That’s what I thought!” Jall said quickly.
“Oh, you are SO full of shit!” Stafford snapped back.
OK. Now they’ve really stopped arguing.
“But what does it mean?” Burke wondered.
“It means we need to go look at one of those Robellus buildings,” Jall said.
“I thought of it first!” Stafford declared.
“Yeah. And we have to get somebody onto one of those unmanned ships,”
“I was going to say that too,” Jall lifted his chin.
“We also,” Valtaic added, “Must determine how wide-spread this problem is.”
“I knew that,” Stafford and Jall said together.
“I really missed this,” Jall said after a moment.
“What,” Stafford asked, “Driving me to the brink of a nervous breakdown?”
“Well, that too,” Jall nodded, “But I mean, isn’t it nice to be back on a mission? Exploring the unknown? Boldly going, and all that?”
“Yeah,” Stafford had to agree, “It is. I sort of wish YOU would boldly go, someplace else. But it is nice to be back,”
All four runabouts landed outside the government building, approval being received from a somewhat distracted Watchum during a commercial for fabric softener.
“Hazardous Team,” Stafford pointed at Stern, “You guys are taking a runabout back out to that fleet. Try to get onto one of the ships without being detected. See if it really is this missing evacuation feet, and why it’s been sitting out there for a century,”
Stern nodded. Next to him, Simmons was bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet.
“Simmons, DON’T BLOW IT UP!” Stafford snapped.
“Yes sir,” Simmons said eagerly enough, but Stafford saw he was still fondling his grenade belt with one hand.
“Beta Shift,” Stafford went on, “You’re going door to door. Find out if it’s just their leaders with this addiction, or if it’s everybody. Try a few different continents.”
“So we’re checking out the Robellus building?” Jall asked.
“Yup,” Stafford nodded.
“OK, people,” Jall clapped his hands, “Alpha Shift, we’re heading to the Robellus building. T’Parief, Fifebee, find us a way through their shield. Sage, well, you’re not really Alpha Shift, but we need an engineer since Jeffery stayed behind. You’ll do the-“
“What are you doing?” Stafford asked quietly.
“You’ve given your orders. Now as your second in command, I’m putting them in action,” Jall said, also quiet, “What’s your problem?”
“Nothing, it’s just…you’re oddly enthusiastic,”
“Sue me,” Jall shrugged, “I told you, it’s good to be back,”
The Beta Shift had the easiest task by far. They’d jumped into the runabout, flown halfway across the planet and landed in a large city near the intersection of two large rivers. Coming in at low altitude they saw an extensive river port facility with docks, loading and unloading equipment and even a few shipyards with half-finished seagoing cargo vessels. Unfortunately, the docks and shipyard facility appeared mostly deserted. The city itself did not have the stone construction of the capitol, but instead metal and glass construction so common on so many worlds. Of course, most races built towers of some sort to maximize their living space, while the Kallars (in this city anyway) had built odd, upside-down teardrop shaped buildings that looked like they’d tip over in a strong wind.
As they landed at the base of one such building, that impression was reinforced by the corroded state of the metal.
“They’re definitely not paying the upkeep,” Burke said, waving his tricorder around.
“Then let’s get this over with before the whole thing falls over,” Lt Pye said.
“You’re the pilot, you’re staying here with the runabout,” Lt Comd Quintaine said, “What are you worried about?”
“I’m worried about this building falling on the runabout, what do you think??”
“Oh. Right,” Quintaine frowned, “Wait. So you’re staying with the runabout, Sage is with the Alpha Shift, Stern is with the Hazardous Team…are we the only three people out here?”
“Lt Day is doing some work on the runabout computer in the rear compartment,” Pye said, “I can get him, if you want,”
“No,” Quinaine shook his head, “I just didn’t realize how short-staffed we were getting,”
“You didn’t notice on the flight over?” Burke asked.
“I thought there were more people in the back,” Quintaine shrugged.
“Have you thought about borrowing a couple of the Beta Shift guys to build up our numbers? Lt Rengs asked Lt Comd Stern as he piloted the HT runabout back towards the robot fleet, “I mean, the Beta security team isn’t all they’re cracked up to be, and we should probably have some people waiting in the wings.”
“Maybe,” Stern shrugged, “You have a point…Simmons or Marsden aren’t going to last much longer,”
“Hey, what do you mean by that?” Marsden asked.
“Well, you’ve been unconscious a lot. That’s, like, REALLY bad for you,” Stern said, “And Simmons is going to pull the wrong pin and blow himself to pieces sooner or later. I just hope he doesn’t take anybody else with him,”
“Or just end up with two legs and an arm blown off,” Simmons added, checking his plasma grenades for the ten millionth time, “That would really suck,”
“Difficult to fight to an honourable death with only one limb,” Crewman Kreklor agreed, “It would be unfortunate,”
“So would dying!” Marsden said.
“You’re not dying,” Simmons said, “You’re just going to take another hit to the head and end up a vegetable. Don’t worry, dude. I’ll visit you. But somebody else has to wipe the drool off your chin,”
Lt Dar’ugal made a series of gestures, several strands of thick, red fur floating happily on the small ship’s air currents as he did.
“Dude, cut down the sign language when you’re shedding,” Simmons complained.
“He has a point though,” Rengs said, “How ARE we going to sneak up on a robot fleet?”
“Marsden, you’re the technology expert,” Stern prompted, “You had the training course, anyway,”
“It’s a centuries old evacuation fleet,” Marsden said, “It was BUILT for people to get on the ships. We probably triggered some sort of defence program when we dropped out of warp right on top of them. A nice, slow approach should work.
An hour later, the HT runabout once again flew at full impulse away from the Kallar fleet, dodging phaser blasts.
“OK,” Marsden gulped as the last attack ship turned back to resume its guard position, “Bad idea. New plan: push an asteroid in their direction, hide behind it with everything shut down, then beam over to one of the ships,”
“This time it better work,” Stern said, “Or we’re sending Dar’ugal on that technology course instead,”
T’Parief and Fifebee stood at the edge of the shield protecting the Robellus building that had launched the antimatter missile at the runabout.
“Shields do not work well in an atmosphere,” Fifebee said, “Not usually. We may want to examine their generator technology, as this one seems more efficient at atmospheric deflection than Federation shields,”
“How do we break it?” T’Parief grumbled.
“I am processing,” Fifebee said. She stood, seeing to stare at the building. “How are you and Lt Yanick coping with the distance between yourselves and your offspring?”
“I thought you were ‘processing’?” T’Parief asked, his tone not exactly inviting discussion.
“I am rotating some of my processor units to basic social discourse,” Fifebee replied, “Slowing them down to the pace of organics on a regular basis reduces the chance of overload,”
“We are fine,” T’Parief said flatly.
“It’s actually bugging me a lot more than I thought it would,” Yanick admitted to Stafford, “I mean, I knew we’d be apart. It’s part of the job. But she’s…she’s just so far away!”
“I can’t imagine it,” Stafford shrugged, “I don’t have kids. Can’t imagine I ever will, at this rate,”
“At least on Silverado she’ll be a few decks down,” Yanick went on, “But if anything happens to the ship…”
“And I guess you won’t be having Jall over for martinis quite as much, huh?” Stafford joked.
“Maybe that’s why I’m talking to you,” Yanick shrugged, “Jall doesn’t really get the whole ‘kids’ thing. Well, neither do you. But…I could at least see you with kids. Could you imagine Jall with kids? I sure can’t!”
Stafford rolled his eyes.
“You could argue,” he said, “That Jall puts more effort into getting people pregnant than anybody else on the ship. He just seems to have missed a minor fact of biology.”
“But could you picture him as a father?”
“Me neither,” Jall had overheard this last and was approaching, arms crossed, “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying,”
“We already made that joke,” Yanick told him.
“Yeah. Look, Fifebee’s found some sort of frequency harmonic that she can use to disrupt the…I don’t know. It sounded like pretty advanced techno-babble. But we can beam into the building in about ten minutes,”
He turned and left.
“You don’t…you don’t think we hurt his feelings, do you?” Yanick asked quietly.
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Stafford shrugged. There was a moment of quiet, then: “So why did you name her ‘Allona’, anyway?”
“Because I like it. Now stop asking question and let me get back to my show,” the Kallar youth said, slamming his door shut.
“Not interested!” Door slammed shut.
“PUT THAT SCANNER AWAY!” Door slammed shut.
Burke rubbed his ear. He wasn’t entirely surprised that the Kallars had old-style hinge doors in some of their buildings. But was surprised at the ringing in his ears when they slammed them shut.
“Don’t they realize we could just scan them through the door?” Burke said, annoyed.
“Wouldn’t that be a really unethical breach of privacy?” Pye asked curiously.
“It wouldn’t have been, until you had to go bringing it up,” Burke’s lip twisted.
Quintaine cleared his throat.
“Yes, it would have been,” Burke corrected himself.
“That’s over twenty apartments now,” Quintane said, half to himself, “I think we’ve established that whatever the story is behind this addiction, it’s planet-wide,”
“Well, statistically speaking…” Burke started.
“Do you want to spend another week going to random cities and knocking on random doors just to confirm what we’re pretty sure we know?”
They started walking towards the elevator.
“So who can we actually talk to?” Pye asked, “Even if there is a planet-wide TV addiction, there has to be a couple of Kallars who are fighting it, right? So if we could find them…”
“Addiction,” Quintaine trailed off thoughtful, then turned to Burke, “You’re an addict, you should know how this sort of thing works, right?”
“Wha…me?” Burke gulped, “No, I’m not addicted to anything. You must be thinking of Crewman Gibson,”
“No, Fifebee gave me copies of the codes she was using to prevent you from accessing your porn database on the bridge,” Quintaine crossed his arms. They had arrived in the building lobby, pausing in the neglected space next to a bed of dead plants.
“Heh, those were easy to break,” Burke chuckled. His laughter faded when he saw the look on Quintaine’s face. He slumped.
“OK, right. If there are anti-addict busybodies on this planet, and there probably are, then we have two options. We either start hunting the electronic bulletin boards for a Television Anonymous meeting,”
“Or we make them come to us,” Burke steepled his fingertips, “We get a bunch of screens, set them up in a public location, say a market, then we sit there watching sexual-education programs until the police show up to haul us away to rehab,”
“Found it,” Pye said, his tricorder aimed at a large screen on one wall of the lobby, “There’s a ‘Broadcast Content Anonymous’ chapter in the city center. They have a meeting tonight,”
“Sounds good. Let’s get to the runabout!” Quintaine said.
“My idea was more fun,” Burke said.
“Yeah, watching pseudo-porn in a shopping mall until the cops come? I don’t think so.”
“OK then,” Pye said, “Let’s go find us a bunch of addicts!”