Author: Brendan Chris
Aboard their unnamed runabout, the HT slowly drifted through space. Literally.
“I can’t breath with all this hair floating around!” Marsden complained, “It’s getting in my…in my…AH-CHOO!”
The force of his sneeze sent him pinwheeling around, arms and legs flailing as he tried to find a handhold to catch himself.
“Look, we don’t want the automated defence ships to detect us,” Stern said, “So we shut everything off and hide behind an asteroid. Starfeet officers do this sort of thing ALL the time!”
“But they never turn off the gravity!” Simmons complained as two of his grenades floated just out of his reach. He carefully extended an arm, one fingertip barely brushing the pull-ring of the closer one.
Dar’ugal grabbed both grenades, checked the safety switches and stashed them back in the appropriate storage compartment.
“HEY!” Simmons complained.
Dar’ugal attempted to sign an explanation. But moving his arms caused his whole body to shift, making it impossible for anybody to catch just what he said.
“If being…ulp…if being shut down is so important, why are the sensors on?” Marsden asked, “And the heat?”
“Oh, I forgot about that,” Stern hit a switch, “We’ll still be pretty warm compared to the asteroid, but every little bit counts. And the sensors are passive.”
“I’m not turning on the gravity!” Stern roared, “Now shut up and let’s work!”
Kreklor had his legs wrapped around the tactical console and was viewing the sensor readouts.
“I am learning nothing new regarding their weapon systems,” he said, “Their shields, however, match our records for a Klingon design used approximately one hundred and fifty standard years ago,”
“You’re saying the Kallars were buying from the Klingons?” Stern asked.
“No,” Kreklor replied, “I’m saying the Kallars bought this fleet from someone who bought a Klingon shield design. And given the time this fleet was supposed to have been built, they were ripped off. Badly.”
“What do you mean?”
Kreklor gave him an oddly human look that, even with his sharp teeth, cranial ridges and swarthy alien skin still managed to say ‘I can’t believe I’m explaining this’.
“We sold much technology in the past,” he said, “None of it was top of the line. And this design fell out of use fifty years before the fleet was built. It is no wonder our runabout phasers cut through them.”
“I’m going to be sick,” Marsden gasped, still spinning. Rengs, strapped into a nearby panel, grabbed him by one ankle and guided him to the next seat.
“I don’t recognize the engine design,” Rengs said, also looking at sensor readings, “The hulls are a titanium-duranium mix. Functional, but cheap. I’m picking up a breathable atmosphere, so we can beam over as soon as we’re in range. In about two hours.”
“So until then, let’s just-“
Mardsen vomited, explosively. Most of it splattered against the port bulkhead, but several other small globs started floating around the cockpit.
“Let’s just get the wet-vac,” Stern winced
With a shower of transporter sparkles, Stafford, Sage, Wowryk, Fifebee and T’Parief materialized inside a large, minimalist yet functional two level lobby.
“Transport complete,” Fifebee reported over the comm, “None of the organics were liquified, and the temporary rely is also intact,”
“Excellent,” Valtaic’s voice came back, barely audible through the interference “I am…track your signals…the shield be lowered…beam you back,”
There was a loug squeal, then the signal died. A not unexpected event.
“Liquified?” Stafford asked, glaring at Fifebee, “That was a possibility?”
“A remote one,” she admitted.
Stafford rolled his eyes.
“Whatever. Start scanning.”
“The building design is clearly not Qu’Eh,” Fifebee said, “It does have some similarities to Hyrosis architecture, a Beta Quadrant race. However, the languages on the signs and displays are Qu’Eh and…Myssasis? Another Beta Quadrant race. Interesting.”
“Federation members?” Stafford asked.
“No. Though both are friendly. Or at least non-hostile. I have no further information, and no connection to the Federation databases,”
“Why is the place empty?” T’Parief asked. He still had his phaser rifle raised and was looking through the scope as he scanned the lobby.
“I believe it is automated,” Fifebee said.
“It wasn’t originally, I bet,” Stafford said, spinning a chair around its mount behind what could only be a reception desk.
“Broadcast Control is this way,” Fifebee said, walking up the staircase.
“You tracking the source of the heavy comm traffic?” Sage wondered.
“No, this building is merely rebroadcasting to a network of satellites in geo…well, kallasyncronous orbit,” Fifebee said, “I am following the sign that says ‘Broadcast Control’. With an arrow pointing in the appropriate direction.”
They made their way up the stairs, through a wide hallway and eventually to a wide set of double doors. Fifebee wasn’t able to make heads or tails out of the locking mechanism, so T’Parief simply fired his phaser rifle until the left door obediently vaporized.
“Wow,” Stafford said as he stepped into the room behind the tall reptile.
The room was roughly the size of a hockey arena, with screens covering every wall and branching off pillars rising from the floor to the ceiling. Hundreds of different entertainment channels were being shown, and the screens kept changing every few minutes. Fifebee started scanning the labels attached to various groups of screens, identifying them to different sections of various cities around the planet.
“OH! SINFUL!” Wowryk cried.
There were several channels dedicated to…adult programming.
“Doctor, could you take a look at this?” Fifebee asked.
“It was a Klingon and a Rigellian in the missionary position,” Wowryk said, fluttering her hands around her head, “And I didn’t see a wedding ring, and no I will NOT check again!”
“That’s not…just please come here,” Fifebee said.
“You saw all that in half a second?” Stafford asked.
“Half a second too much!” Wowryk said.
“Which screen was it? One of my exes told me I could learn a thing or two from the Klingons,”
Wowryk smacked Stafford upside the head then went to find Fifebee.
“Ow,” Stafford muttered.
“Definitely automated,” Sage said, “I found several control stations, all of them with fairly obvious upgrades to move actual control of the place off-planet. Fairly normal for cutting down on the number of people you need.”
“If you’re cheap,” Stafford said.
“Yeah. Which seems to be a recurring theme here.”
Fifebee was several pillars over, pointing at one of the curved screens.
“I have determined that there are nearly fifty thousand screens,” she said, “And they are cycling through various viewing screens across the planet. But I do not understand this,” she gestured at an inset square on the screen,”
“Those are bio-readings,” Wowryk said immediately, “Mostly related to brain activity. And…I don’t understand this one,” she pointed at a word the tricorder and universal translator evidently didn’t know, “But whatever it is, it’s at 85%. Some sort of alien neurotransmitter?”
“This is why we cannot get a transmission out of this system,” Fifebee said, “If all this data is being transmitted out, along with all the entertainment programming coming in…”
“Why is a cable company tracking brain activity of some of their customers?” Stafford demanded, “Isn’t that illegal?”
“In the Federation, it is,” T’Parief said.
“And it’s not some of their customers,” Wowryk said slowly, watching as all the screens switched from channel to channel, each with one or more bio-readings inset in the lower corner.
“It’s all of them.
“My name is Liftum, and I’m an addict,” the pale, nearly featureless Kallar said as he stood in the center of the group of rag-tag Kallars that had gathered in what was once a fitness club. It clearly hadn’t been used in years, as most of the equipment was covered in dust.
“Hello Liftum,” the rest of the group, including Quintaine, Pye and Burke chanted politely.
“I used to watch twenty-eight hours of television a day,” Liftum went on, “I’d sleep during the commercials, then in the middle of the night when the reality show re-runs were on. I even installed a waste extraction unit in the TV room so I wouldn’t miss anything,”
“How long is a Kallar day?” Pye whispered.
“Thirty hours,” Burke replied.
“I am still a virgin,” Liftum said, “Though I am twenty years old,”
“How long is a Kallar-“
“One and a half standard years,” Burke cut Pye off, “he’s thirty,”
“-simply did not leave the house to meet females,” Liftum was going on, “But I have gone for eight hours now without watching television,”
“And how do you feel?” the group organizer, a Kallar who had introduced herself as Runum asked.
“Terrible!” Liftum cried, “I don’t know who won Critical Combat last night! I don’t know if Yurta and Prestum mated two nights ago on Acquaintances! And I have this horrible, strange feeling in my head, almost as if…as if…my skull is shrinking!”
“But eight!” the Runum asked, “That’s hours longer than anyone else has lasted! You my be The One!”
“I can’t go on!” Liftum groaned, squinting his eyes shut, “It…it doesn’t hurt, but I feel something. Something…I don’t know if it’s wonderful or terrible, but it’s unbearable!”
The other Kallars were now staring at Liftum in a mix of hope and fear.
“Scan him,” Quintaine whispered to Burke.
“But they don’t want-“
“Hi,” Quinaine stood up,”
“Do you have the token?” Runum asked, “I’m sure Liftum still has the token.
“We don’t know what’s going on, we just want to scan him!”
The Kallars pulled back in horror.
“That violates the Customer Use Agreement!” one of them cried out.
“We don’t understand-“
“AUUUGGGGHH!!!!!” Liftum screamed, clutching his head.
“Get the screen!” Runum shouted, jumping to her feet to grab at the male as he fell from his chair. Two Kallars rushed in, a large screen held between them. On it a group of bumpy aliens were sitting around a campfire, speaking in a language the Universal Translator apparently needed more time to crack.
“Open your eyes, Liftum!” Runum said, rubbing his head as they stretched him out on the floor and held the screen in front of him.
Liftum’s eyes opened and flicked towards the screen. They locked on the show immediately. His breathing slowed and he seemed to calm down. The two holding the screen slowly moved to the far corner of the room, where several mats had been laid down. Liftum followed.
“Well,” Runum sighed, “That’s disappointing. Is anybody else here over the six hour mark?”
No hands went up.
“OK, let’s call it quits for today,” she said, “Same time tomorrow. Try to keep it under an hour at a time tonight, OK?”
There was assorted mumbling as the group dispersed.
Burke, Pye and Quintaine stayed behind.
“That was…interesting,” Quintaine said, trying to be diplomatic, “And strangely familiar. Where did you get the…um…idea for the way to run this addiction group? The discussion format. Because it might be trademarked.”
“I saw it on TV,” Runum shrugged, “We have chapters all over the planet. But hardly anybody comes. Nobody WANTS to be cured of TV addiction,”
“Hey, some addictions are fun!” Burke objected.
“Is he going to be ok?” Quintaine pointing at Liftum.
“He’ll be fine. We’ll let him watch for an hour or two to get his fix in, then take him off it again,” Runum looked at Quintaine as if seeing him for the first time, “What planet are you from? No wonder you have so many questions!”
“I’m Lieutenant Commander Quintaine of the starship…well, from the United Federation of Planets,” he straightened up a little, “We came here to find out why the Qu’Eh didn’t enslave your planet. But so far we’re just finding a whole lot of confusion.”
“Are you serious?” Runum lifted an eyebrow, “Look, the Qu’Eh have been a power for centuries, providing quality assurance services to thousands of companies and organizations,”
“Uh-huh,” Quintaine nodded, “Look, we’re not from around here. So we don’t know a lot of the history.”
“Well the Qu’Eh wouldn’t have much of a business if those companies and organizations didn’t have customers, now would they?” Runum said, hands moving in an odd gesture, “The Qu’Eh and Robellus have the perfect relationship on Kallar IV. Robellus bleeds us dry of resources in exchange for this addictive filth,” she waved at Liftum’s screen, “and the Qu’Eh monitor everything and let Robellus know exactly what to do to keep us under their control. Really, it should be obvious,”
“Maybe to you,” Quintaine was digging one toe into the floor. Actually, it did make sense. Why had they flown all the way out here, again?”
“But TV isn’t usually addictive,” Burke said.
“It’s always been that way here,” Runum said, “As long as we can remember, anyway. And nobody’s been working very hard to keep track.”
“Look, I know you have a…a thing here. But would you come with us? Some of our people are trying to investigate one of the Robellus stations right now, and-“
“YOU GOT INTO ROBELLUS??” Runum demanded, her near-featureless face still doing a good job of communicating total shock.
“Well, either that or they were turned into a liquid by a transporter malfunction,” Burke said.
Quintaine slowly turned to look at him. “What?”
“Oh, right. Fifebee said not to mention that,”
“I must bring some people with me,” Runum said, “Including Liftum, when he is recovered.
“Fine. But speaking of, why can’t we scan anybody?”
“Oh, Robellus added that to the Customer End User agreement decades ago. Only Robellus certified bio-sensors may be used on any customers.”
“Um…this may be important,” Burke said, “And you’re trying to break out of this anyway…”
“Oh, yes. Go ahead. It’s mostly the ones terrified of losing their service that…overreact.”
Burke scanned Liftum and Runum, but whatever had been happening during his fit had evidently passed.
“Odd neurological readings in both of them,” he reported, “But nothing that would explain that reaction. Although…there’s something happening here that I really don’t understand,”
“Send the data to Lt. Fifebee,” Quintaine said, “I think we’ve accomplished our task. Let’s get back to the rest of the crew,”
“Lieutenant Fifebee!” Wowryk admonished, “What was that!”
“Pardon me,” Fifebee said, “Somebody just sent a tricorder data-burst to my program.
“No, you just belched like a beer-swigging pig!” Wowryk said.
“The transmission seemed to trigger an unintended side-effect in my program,”
“Hmm. Transmission failed. I’ll try again,” Burke said.
“Lieutenant! Stop this at once!”
“They keep trying to resend the data!”
“Geez,” Stafford said, pulling his attention away from of the screens long enough to look in Fifebee’s general direction, somewhere across the huge room, “What’s gotten into her,”
“Hmmmm,” T’Parief said, not pulling his eyes away from a nearby screen showing a pair of large, bear-like aliens in what seemed to be a fight to the death, “I am sure they will…figure it…out…”
Neither of them noticed the small bio-reading boxes appear on their screens, one human. And one Parian.
After a moment, both boxes flashed a message in alien script. If they’d had their tricorders out, they would have seen that the message read ‘Candidate Not Suitable’. But they didn’t, and both the messages and the bio-readings disappeared.
Both continued to stare at the screens.
“We will be within five hundred meters of an unarmed ship in two minutes,” Rengs reported.
“OK,” Stern said, “Thrusters only. They we space-walk over, find an airlock, make our way in and hope that while we’re there the armed ships don’t detect us and do their automatic attack thing,”
“Or we just program the runabout to run away if it gets shot at,” Marsden said. He was still looking a bit green from his earlier vomit incident. And the runabout cockpit smelled…unpleasant.
“That’s a good idea,” Stern tapped away, “Let’s do that.”
“In range,” Rengs reported.
“OK, here we go,” Stern bit his lip.
He tapped the thrusters to reduce the runabouts forward motion, causing it to drift away from the asteroid they’d hidden behind. Of course, the asteroid was moving pretty fast relative to the stationary Kallar ship. And the thrusters had to pump out a fair bit of energy to stop something as heavy as a runabout.
“Robot ship moving to intercept!” Kreklor barked.
“Well they sure didn’t cheap out on their sensors, did they?” Stern cursed, “OK, new plan! Beam over!”
“But the runabout-“
“Will escape on auto-pilot!” Stern said, “Beam over!”
“BEAM OVER!” he hit a button restoring full power to the small craft, including gravity. Dar’ugal and Simmons crashed to the carpeted deck.
“Ouch,” Simmons grunted. Kreklor grabbed him under the arms and shoved him in the transporter alcove. He abruptly vanished.
And materialized in a large cargo bay, Rengs right beside him. Another hum of the transporter and Marsden and Kreklor appeared, followed by Stern and Dar’ugal.
They looked around, then Stern’s comm-badge beeped.
“Runabout out of range of robot ships,” the computer voice announced.
“See, the runabout is safe,” Stern said.
“But as I was trying to ask,” Marsden said, “How are we getting back on the runabout?”
Stern opened his mouth. Closed it, thought for a moment.
“I still can’t get the data to go through,” Burke frowned.
“You’re sending it to the right port?” Pye asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Quintaine said, “We’re taking these Kallars there anyway,”
“Maybe you should try calling them,” Pye suggested to Burke.
But there was no answer on his comm badge.
“That shield must be interfering. Or there’s still too much comm traffic. Either way, I can’t get them.”
“Could that be causing the tricorder problem too?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Look, I’m just a minor character, and I’m pretty out of practice.”
“OK, OK. We’ll just wait for them to turn off the shield, then we’ll walk in and talk to them.
“Why do you suppose Bree keeps putting up with Hanan?” Stafford asked T’Parief as the two of them stared at the big TV screens, “I mean, she keeps flirting with all his friends. You don’t like it when Yanick does that,”
“Perhaps he is merely awaiting the correct moment to disembowel her.”
“The show is rated PG, big guy. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“This is why I wanted to watch ‘Ultimate Submissions’ on the Explosive Combat Network,” T’Parief grumbled
“T’Parief, I think you’re confusing combat with bondage sex,” Stafford replied, his eyes not leaving the screen.
“Don’t be ridiculous” T’Parief scoffed as Wowryk and Fifebee walked over to their small corner of the huge, screen-filled arena, “If your partner has submitted, there is no need to tie them up,”
“I don’t even want to know,” Wowryk said, “Look, I thought you guys were going to turn off the defensive shield for this place so we could maybe leave? I don’t know what else we’re going to learn,”
“I would like to examine the records,” Fifebee said, “There are likely database access points in the control room,”
“You guys do that,” Stafford waved, “I want to see if Hanan cheats on Bree with Haspar,”
“OK,” Wowryk said slowly, “Since when did you start liking bad soap operas?”
“Since never,” Stafford shrugged, “But I still want to know,”
Wowryk’s tricorder was out and pointed right at him.
“Wow,” she said, “Your brain activity looks like something out of a cheap drug den,”
“I feel fine,” Stafford replied, “Hey, did you guys notice any chairs when you were wandering around? Or maybe a beer fridge?”
“Captain, we are here to understand the Kallars and their relationship with the Qu’Eh,” Fifebee said, looking somewhat alarmed, “Not to sit on the fat-pads of your gluteus maximus as you observe poorly written drivel,”
“But if Hanan cheats on Bree with Haspar, then Bree can chase after that blond with the…well, whatever race she is don’t have much in the way of breasts. But she’s still really attractive for some reason,”
“Your endorphins and enkephalins are up…it’s almost like you’re on heroine or something,” Wowryk said, “I think that’s enough TV for now,”
“Just until the end of this episode,” Stafford protested.
Wowryk stood in front of him. He tried to look around her, like a little kid. Fifebee was pulling at T’Parief with no luck.
“Leave him for now,” Wowryk said, “If we can bring the Captain back to his senses, he can help us with T’Parief,”
“I’m fine!” Stafford waved away her concerns, peering over her shoulder.
Fifebee released T’Parief, walked over to Stafford and clamped her hands over his eyes.
The effect was immediate. It was almost as if the somebody had let the air out of the man. He deflated, sagging almost to his knees.
“BRING THE SHOW BACK!” he wailed.
Wowrykw was tapping at her tricorder. She fiddled with her med-kit, then jabbed him with a hypospray. Slowly, he recovered.
“What was that?” Fifebee asked.
“We use it for treating opiate addicts for withdrawal,” Wowryk said, “Why it was necessary after watching at TV program…I have no idea. But that thing with the eyes was a great idea.”
“Let’s just get out of here,” Stafford said, looking vaguely green.
“Here,” Wowryk handed Fifebee a second hypospray, “I’ll get Stafford out to the corridor, you take care of T’Parief,”
“Oh, is that Trading Starships?” Stafford asked, turning towards another screen.
“MOVE!” Wowryk shoved both hands on his back and pushed.
“ALERT! ALERT! UNAUTHORIZED PRESENCE DETECTED!”
“Oh hell,” Stern groaned as he materialized in an unremarkable cargo bay, “Say what you want about these Kallars, they didn’t skimp on the sensors,”
“INITIALIZE SECURITY PROTOCOLS,” the computerized voice continued in the Kallar language, their badges translating.
“Get ready!” Stern ordered, taking cover behind a crate.
There was an odd chime, then a similar but not quite identical computer voice chimed in.
“Warning,” the new voice said, “Gas canisters are empty. You can have your intruder mobilization system re-charged with a wide variety of lethal and non-lethal substances. Call your Budget Fleet representative for details and your personalized quote,”
Marsden had his tricorder out. Sure enough, the atmosphere remained breathable and free of toxins.
“Well,” Stern started to relax, “That’s a re-“
“INTRUDERS DETECTED IN MAIN CARGO BAY,” the original voice thundered, “ACTIVATING SECURITY MECHANOIDS,”
“Take cover!” Stern barked. But the second voice spoke again a few seconds.
“Greetings!” it said, as though it hadn’t spoken before, “You have not opted to purchase our Enhanced Intruder Countermeasures package. Including security mechanoids, bulkhead mounted defensive beam weapons and the latest in life-sign tracking systems, the Enhanced package guarantees your ship remains yours. Call your Budget Fleet representative today!”
“Not picking up anything,” Marsden confirmed.
“Screw it,” Stern stood back up and motioned for the team to follow him, “Keep an eye out, but I think this place is deserted.”
His guess turned out to be fairly accurate. Three more times the computerized voice warned of the activation of various anti-intruder systems, but each time the second voice chimed in, reminding the non-existent crew that they hadn’t purchased that particular option.
“I get the whole marketing thing,” Stern said at one point, “But this seems a bit excessive,”
“Can you imagine?” Simmons spoke, “You’re about to be horribly killed by a violent intruder, and the last thing you hear is a marketing pitch?”
“Horrible way to die,” Rengs agreed.
They came to an intersection of two corridors. Something caught Dar’ugals eye, several meters down the cross-corridor. He moved down to look, then waved Stern over
“Cloths,” Stern murmured. Indeed, what looked like a set of overalls were on the floor, along with a pair of boots and socks.
“As if somebody just lay down and died,” Simmons said, eyes wide as a little kid at a campfire.
“No body. No bones,” Rengs said, “Not even any residue. This ship has supposedly been here for a hundred years, there should be something left,”
“Ship cleaning bots?” Marsden suggested.
“Then why are the cloths here?” Stern asked.
The continued their search of the empty ship, finding a few more sets of abandoned overalls. One turn led them into a small lounge. Several sets of overalls were scattered on the various pieces of furniture. But most of them were gathered right in front of the large viewscreen that dominated one end of the ship. The screen itself was displaying static, and probably had been doing so for a century.
Marsden started fiddling with the screen.
“It was keyed to an external broadcast,” he said after a moment, “But there seems to be some sort of problem with the ship’s transceiver array.”
“I don’t suppose there’s a map to the bridge on there?” Stern asked.
Marsden tapped for a few minutes.
Quintaine, Burke and Pye were hovering in their runabout about three hundred meters above the Robellus building when their comm panel abruptly started chirping. Day was in the back, presumably still trying to work out the kinks with the comms system. (He’d actually fallen asleep and nobody had thought to check on him.)
“We just got a data packet from the fourth runabout,” Burke said, “They can’t get through to us on the usual frequencies. But there’s a Qu’Eh ship less than an hour away from entering orbit.”
“We better tell the Captain,” Quintaine said.
“Sure, as soon as he lowers that stupid shield.”
“Fifebee, just lower the stupid shield,” Stafford said
“I’m trying” she said, annoyed, “Whoever built this facility, Qu’Eh or not, they evidently don’t believe in traditional labelling!”
“Just find the ‘OFF’ switch!”
“That might turn off the whole complex,”
“So?” Stafford unconsciously rubbed the spot where Wowryk had injected him, “I for one don’t think shutting down a broadcast facility that pumps out visual heroine is really such a bad idea,”
“Prime Directive?” Wowryk reminded him.
“Right, that thing,” Stafford sighed, “OK, just turn off the shield then,”
“As I have been trying to do for the past ten minutes!” Fifebee said crossly, “Cease speaking!”
“Well,” Stern said as he surveyed the Kallar vessel’s bridge, “Not exactly what I expected.”
“Hmmm,” Rengs agreed.
“Actually,” Simmons said, “this is WAYYY more like what I expected.”
“I as well,” Kreklor said as he carefully scanned the room with his phaser rifle scope.
“You were expecting piles of bodies?” Stern asked.
“This is not piles,” Kreklo scoffed, “They aren’t on top of each other at all. There are at most ten bodies,”
“Still,” Marsden gulped.
“At least they’re not still…juicy,” Stern said.
The bodies in question were in two groups. ‘Piles’ might have come to mind, but Kreklor was actually right…there were only about a dozen bodies total. One group had clearly been trying to defend one of the consoles on the port side of the bridge. Several chairs and pieces of briefing room furniture had been raised in a very poor defence. One group of bodies was mostly behind the barricade, while the second group had several members near the doors to the bridge, half slouched behind support columns. Two more bodies had fallen rushing the barricade.
“Forensic scan,” Stern ordered. Tricorders came out, phasers rifles were slung. Kreklor took up a guard position over the two visible entrances to the bridge. The automated security systems made a half-hearted attempt to initiate lethal countermeasures against alien intruders on the bridge, but the computer reminded them that the bridge disintegration fields were an optional accessory, available for the low, low price of ‘Call your Budget Feet dealer today!’.
“Twelve bodies,” Rengs reported, “All dead. Clearly dead for decades, probably the century or so this fleet has supposedly been here.”
“Dried right out,” Marsden added, a small, white cloth over his mouth and his features visibly green, “Decomposed as far as they could, then mummified. No…ugh…”
“No insects or scavengers to eat the bodies,” Kreklor clarified.
“What he said,” Marsden said, then dry-heaved.
“Any idea what killed them?” Stern asked.
“No, but probably energy weapons,” Marsden said, “Rengs?”
“I’m the energy weapon specialist,” Rengs agreed, “But there’s no way to tell if that’s what killed them.”
Dar’ugal started gesturing. He had been tapping away at one of the stations.
“Just download the logs,” Stern told him.
“What do you guys think of this?” Simmons asked. He pointed at the panel that the barricade might have been defending. It was smashed completely to hell. A heavy wrench lay near one of the bodies behind the barricade.
“It looks,” Stern said slowly, “Like they smashed up the panel they were supposed to be defending?”
Dar’ugal waved his hands again, pointed at the body, then at the panel.
Stern waved Marsden over. Relieved to be getting some distance between himself and the corpses, he moved to the panel and brought up the security footage Dar’ugal had found.
“They weren’t defending the panel,” he called to Stern after a moment, “They were buying time for this guy to smash the living crap out of it.”
“What station was it?” Stern asked.
Rengs pointed his tricorder at some of the mangled Kallar script on the smashed panel.
“Communications, I think,”
Stern frowned, thinking of all the piles of cloths clustered around viewing screens showing transceiver errors.
“So they fought a pitched battle to the death to…turn off TV services to the ship?”
“Not just the ship,” Marsden said, “I’m not sure, but it sounds like they were trying to send a feedback pulse into the transceivers on the other ships…cut them all off completely.
“Why the hell would they do that?”
Sterns comm-badge beeped. He stepped to the side to take the comm.
“Do we have security footage of any other decks?” Rengs asked.
Marsden tapped away.
“You’re thinking about all the other bodies?” he asked.
“Yeah. There are bodies in uniforms on the bridge. But everywhere else, just abandoned uniforms.”
Marsden shook his head.
“The system only has so much space for security logs. The bridge and engineering have over a century of logs, but everything else is overwritten every eight days. We can’t even recover what’s been overwritten, not after a century,”
“Nothing in Engineering?”
“I…I don’t think so.”
He pulled up the log. A fairly generic warp core pulsed away, but it appeared to be in low-power mode. Lights glittered on panels. Nobody was visible.
“This is when communications when offline.” Marsden said.
Nothing seemed to change on the display.
Marsden sped up the log. The core was strobing, lights danced spasmodically. But absolutely nothing changed.
“Wait, what’s that,” Rengs pointed.
Marsden reversed the log, then resumed playback at normal speed.
“There,” Rengs pointed.
“I don’t see anything,” Marsden said.
Rengs took the controls and figured out how to zoom in. He centred the view on the reflective control surface to the very left of the screen. When he resumed playback, a dim glow briefly appeared. It seemed to shift, then vanished.
“That is extremely unhelpful,” Kreklor said, looking briefly over their shoulders.
“OK people,” Stern had returned from his conversation, “That was Crewman Shwaluk in the fourth runabout. There’s a Qu’Eh ship closing on the planet. They can’t get ahold of the Captain and they want us back there for support.”
“How did they get the message through to us?” Marsden asked.
“Well, they had to fly out to our runabout in their runabout, dock the two, tie the transmitters together and…whatever. It worked,” Stern crossed his arms, “Now, Marsden…can you fly this thing?”
“If the runabouts come to get us, they’ll be attacked by the defence ships,” Stern said, “So fly us out there.”
“Ahhh….oh,” Marsden gulped, then gingerly sat in the seat.
“Rengs, sensors. Kreklor…well, I know there aren’t any weapons. Is there a shield control station?”
Kreklor looked around.
“There is a fully functional tactical station,” he said, “I will take it,”
“Wait,” Stern frowned, “Why is-“
“I will take it,” Kreklor said firmly.
Stern abruptly shoved him out of the way.
“That is challenge to the death, human!” Kreklor bellowed, assuming a fighting stance.
“Oh, stow it,” Stern said, ignoring him. He tapped at the panel, running his tricorder over the displays to translate the readouts.
“Oh,” he smiled, “Oh…this is interesting…”
Quintaine, Burke, Day, Liftum, Runum and two more of the Television Anonymous Kallars materialized not far from where Stafford, Wowryk and T’Parief were watching as Fifebee worked on the building shield controls.
“Shields have been deactivated,” Fifebee said.
“Oh thank God,” Pye breathed, “I was so worried…you know, about the…liquidy thing,”
“I guess with the shields down we didn’t need to take the risk,” Burke shrugged.
“I lowered the shields after you materialized,” Fifebee clarified, “You were, in fact, in considerable danger,”
“Oh,” Pye said quietly.
“Of course, if you’d waited half a minute…” Stafford trailed off, noticing the Kallars “Who are these guys?”
There was another transporter chime, then Jall materialized.
“Hey, you got the shield down,” he commented, “Did you know there’s a Qu’Eh ship almost right on top of u?”
“No!” Stafford barked. He spun on Quintaine angrily.
“We were about to tell you!” Quintaine said.
“Also, this is Liftum, Runum, Strechum and Jogum,” Pye introduced the Kallars, “They’re from Broadcast Content Anonymous,”
Wowryk perked up.
“So you know your entertainment programs are somehow affecting your neurotransmitters in a fashion similar to addictive opiates?” Wowryk asked.
The three nearly featureless aliens just stared at her.
“I guess not,” Wowryk muttered.
Liftum abruptly put his hands to his temples and winced.
“He’s going into withdrawal again,” Runum said.
“And I’m not feeling so great either,” Stretchum offered.
“There’s a giant TV chamber down the hall,” Stafford said helpfully.
“Wait,” Quintaine cut in, “Doc…we wanted to talk to you and Fifebee about some of the weird tricorder readings we were getting,”
“Linked to brain activity?” Fifebee asked.
“How did you know?”
“Because this facility is using sensors built into the viewscreens to monitor bio-readings of the whole population, including some specific brain patterns I’m not familiar with,” Wowryk said.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but there’s a Qu’Eh ship in orbit!” Jall cut in.
“Well we can’t exactly hail them with all the comm channels full, now can we?” Stafford snapped, “Wowryk, can you do anything for their television withdrawal?”
“I don’t really have to,” Wowryk sniffed, “We could just shut down the channels and let them go cold turkey. It would be very unpleasant, but they would survive,”
“I dunno, Doc,” Burke said, “It looked like this guy was going to die when we saw him. And that was after a few hours!”
Wowryk waved a hand.
“I doubt it,” she said. But after a moment she pulled out her medical tricorder and began scanning Liftum as he watched her nervously.
“Well?” Stafford asked.
“It won’t kill him,” Wowryk confirmed, “But…these readings are very strange. Fifee, do you recognize them?”
Fifebee looked over.
“No,” she said, “But keep in mind I am operating without my usual link to detailed scientific and historical databases,”
“So what do you think we should do?” Stafford asked.
“Uh, hello?” Jall tried again, “Qu’Eh?”
“I’d like to observe him,” Wowryk decided, “In case this ‘almost death’ happens again,”
“Fine,” Stafford nodded, “Wowryk, you and Fifebee stay here with the other science people. The rest of us,” he gave Jall a look, “Will go see if we can have a chat with the Qu’Eh,”
“We are already here,” a bland voice spoke. Everybody spun to the door to see a single Qu’Eh officer standing there. He had a rather elaborate headset and microphone grafted onto his skull, and the starfish-like tendrils of his exposed ear were twitching in annoyance.
“And you have seriously violated the end-user agreements of this facility,” he said with a frown.
The Qu’Eh hadn’t come alone. Several more were behind him. They were armed, as were the Starfleet officers, but their weapons were holstered.
“You have illegally entered a Robellus facility,” the Qu’Eh continued, “You have potentially accessed sensitive corporate information belonging to the Qu’Eh, and to Robellus Corporation. You have also disturbed our…customers.”
“Well,” Stafford crossed his arms, “We actually came here to return a ship to your people. We just got a bit…distracted.”
“I see,” The Qu’Eh didn’t exactly look impressed, “And where is this ship?”
“It’s in the outer solar system,” Jall cut Stafford off, “There were a few quality control items we had to look at first,”
The Qu’Eh jerked.
“Am I to understand,” he said, “that after the promise of a returned ship, which would have figured very highly on my annual review, I might add, I must now return to the Corporate Authority with substandard merchandise?”
“Of course not,” Jall purred, “If you would just give us a bit of time to sort out this minor issue, we’ll give you the coordinates of the ship and you can go get it,”
The Qu’Eh hesitated.
“You are not authorized to be in this facility,” he said, apparently satisfied with Jall’s explanation, “It is the property of Robellus Corp, and they are quite stringent on such matters. Company policy-“
“Look,” Stafford said, “We’d be happy to be on our way. But there’s something affecting these people, and we’re sort of obligated to try to help them. It’s…well, it’s sort of the Federation’s thing,”
“And I doubt Robellus owns the whole planet,” Jall chucked. Then he abruptly stopped, looking worried, “Right?”
“Erase all records from your visit here and depart the facility at once,” the Qu’Eh snapped, “You are not suitable to Robellus in this matter. The Kallars are customers of Robellus, and as such we must ensure they receive the highest quality programming as desired by Robellus,”
“So why isn’t Robellus here watching their precious customers?” Jall asked.
“We were…contracted,” the Qu’Eh said.
“Look, whoever you are,” Wowryk cut in.
“Oh, I beg your pardon. How low-quality of me. I am Manager Reevart of the Qu’Eh vessel Lifecycle Validation,” the Qu’Eh introduced himself.
“Captain Stafford, USS…” Stafford paused, “Ummm….well,”
“Look, I’m trying to treat this man for withdrawal,” Wowryk said, not exactly telling the truth, “So why don’t you and the Captain go talk about this somewhere else?”
“I cannot permit you to remain in this facility,” the Qu’Eh said coldly.
“Fine,” Stafford said, “We’ll take these Kallars back to our runabout. But we’re not leaving,”
“We will escort you out,” the Qu’Eh said, gesturing to his people.
Suddenly surrounded, Stafford opted to depart. Sure, he could have had T’Parief make a scene. But the really annoying thing was that it WAS their building.
“Well that was embarrassing,” Stafford grunted as he stood next to the runabouts that had landed. He could see Qu’Eh patrolling the perimeter of the Robellus building. As he watched, the security shield reactivated.
“There wasn’t anything else in that building we needed, was there?” Jall asked.
“I don’t know,” Stafford slouched, “But we’ve got our answer. Quintaine was telling me about what Runum said…the Kallars can’t be employed by the Qu’Eh, because Robellus has hired the Qu’Eh to monitor what the Kallars think of their entertainment packages.”
“So all we have to do to protect other planets from the Qu’Eh is sign up for overpriced drivel that has apparently addictive side effects,” Jall said, “Don’t think that’s useful,”
“No, but it’s enough for Tunney,” Stafford said, “We’ll let Wowryk monitor these guys for a bit, and see if she can adapt our withdrawal drugs to their biology. Luckily, since the Qu’Eh and Robellus scrambled their culture, we don’t have to worry about the Prime Directive if we go and unscramble it.”
“What was that thing about testing the Qu’Eh ship?” he asked, “It was destroyed!”
“Yeah, Jall shrugged, “But we don’t want to tell him that. If the Qu’Eh become a problem…”
“We give them the coordinates to the robot fleet that blew us up,” Stafford suddenly understood, “Assuming the HT hasn’t switched it off, or something,”
“Have we heard from the Hazardous Team yet?” Jall asked.
“No, but their runabout is on the way back to orbit,” Stafford shrugged.
“I guess we just collect our people and go then,” Jall said.
“We don’t do anything to free these people from the corporate leeches that are using this addiction to suck every resource they can out of this planet,” Jall said.
“Well, not right now,”
“And we don’t tell them that the escape fleet their ancestors ordered and bought a century ago is just sitting at the endge of their solar system,”
“We did tell them, they didn’t believe us,” Stafford’s hands shot out, “And most of them don’t WANT the shows to end. Otherwise Runum would have more than just a support group to work with. I mean, we figured out the addiction thing in a day, and Wowryk will probably have a cure in half an hour.”
“We could just blow up that Robellus building,” Jall said.
“And risk another confrontation with the Qu’Eh?”
“We can take them,”
“In four runabouts?”
“Right,” he said glumly.
Suddenly, Burke came running out of the runabout.
“Dr. Wowryk wants you guys in the rear compartment,” he said breathlessly, “Now!”
A look of annoyance crossed Stafford’s face, but he followed the junior science officer.
They found Liftum lying flat on his back on one of the rear bunks. He appeared to by lying calmly, but the beeps and alarms from various medical instruments revealed that the situation wasn’t exactly calm.
“Doc?” Stafford asked.
“It started about an hour ago,” Wowryk said “At first, it looked like more of the typical withdrawal symptoms. I had modified our medication for his bio-chemistry, and it stopped his symptoms. But his neuro-chemistry and neuronal activity are off the charts,”
“Is he dying?” Stafford asked.
“I…I don’t think so,” Wowryk said, “His heart rate and all other readings are normal,”
Fifebee consulted a readout from the wall panel, then turned.
“It would appear,” Fifebee said, “That something in the television broadcast was preventing this from happening. The readings I took in the transmission facility indicate that Robellus, or whomever is operating that facility, was studying the Kallars. This may be what specifically they were studying,”
Stafford turned to Runum.
“Can you think of any reason why anybody would want to study your people?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” she said “Robellus has been our entertainment provider for over a century,”
“But it couldn’t have always been like this,” Stafford pressed, “You had a society…a civilization! Right now you’re all just spending your lives staring at screens!”
“Perhaps the urge is stronger now than before,” Runum admitted, “But I can’t…I couldn’t…”
She grabbed at her midsection and doubled over. Wowryk ran over and injected her with a hypo. She immediately looked better, but something was still wrong. Wowryk moved on and injected the remaining two Kallars, one of them going into spasms about two seconds before the hypospray hit.
After seeing to their comfort, she moved back to where Fifebee was tapping at her tricorder.
“Whatever is happening to their brains, it has nothing to do with the withdrawal,” she said, “That is merely the result of the addictive influence of the Qu’Eh or Robellus broadcast. This other effect, the one the broadcast was preventing…I feel as though it should be familiar, but without my link to the scientific databases, I cannot bring up the necessary data,”
Liftum abruptly gasped. His body tightened once, then went slack. The monitors starting beeping bloody murder as his heart rate dropped to zero.
“Crash cart!” Wowryk started to say, but stopped, stunned.
Liftum’s heart rate may have dropped to zero, but his brain activity had spiked off Wowryk’s re- calibrated charts. There was an electronic squeal, then the monitor sparked and died.
Then Liftum’s body began to glow.
It started at his head, a soft white glow that quickly spread over his entire body. Orbs of light seemed to dance around him, barely at the edge of perception, spiralling upward as his body slowly faded. In mere seconds, the bunk was empty.
“Um,” Jall raised his hand, “I think I know what the Qu’Eh were studying.”
“Holy shit,” Staffod’s draw job, “Was that…did we just see…I mean, you read about it at the Academy…that whole V’ger thing…”
“The Kallars are evolving beyond their material forms and into pure consciousness,” Fifebee looked annoyed with herself, “Even without the databases, I should have figured that one out,”
“We’re…we’re what?” Runum asked, her eyes wide as she stared at Liftum’s empty bunk, “How…why?”
“I thought,” Stafford said slowly, “That a race had to be highly evolved and…you know…intelligent in order to do that”
“Hey!” Runum looked indignant.
“Evidently this process started over a century ago,” Wowryk said “The Qu’Eh or Robellus or whoever must have found the Kallars on the very edge of ascension, realized it and figured out how to delay the process. It gave them the chance to study it,”
“But the Kallars kept evolving,” Jall nodded, “It took more and more of the broadcasts to delay the process,”
“So they made it increasingly addictive,” Wowryk nodded, “The broadcasts moved from a casual entertainment to an obsession.”
“And Robellus realizes they’re making far more profit from a planet of addicts than they would from studying any sort of evolutionary thing,” Valtaic quietly added.
“But,” Wowryk was thoughtful, “Sooner or later, the Kallars would evolve anyway.”
“But what about the Kallars that already evolved?” Stafford asked.
“For all we know,” Fifebee shrugged, “They may still be watching the broadcasts, but we are unable to perceive them,”
“But what…ohhh my God, it’s full of stars!” Runum abruptly collapsed, then dissolved into white light.
“It can’t be the Qu’Eh behind this,” T’Parief said, the first words he’d spoken in a while, “Their only concern was evicting us from the Robellus building. It is doubtful they even know what has been happening here,”
“Noel,” Stafford said thoughtfully, “You said the withdrawal symptoms weren’t fatal,”
“No,” Wowryk said, “But they are very unpleasant. As we have seen with this addictions group, the symptoms drive them back to the broadcasts before the transformation can begin.”
“So they’d evolve even without your meds. They just need to stay away from the broadcasts?”
“So we shut down or destroy the facility,” Jall suggested again, “Sure, it’ll be a bit painful for them. For about an hour.”
“The Prime Directive doesn’t apply to us,” Stafford said thoughtfully, “It’s Robellus who’s preventing their natural development,”
“Well, now we’re OBLIGATED to blow it up,” he said crossly.
“Doesn’t that make it easier?” T’Parief rumbled.
“Well yeah, but now it’s not a matter of being the brave crew that sweeps in and saves the planet because we’re wonderful,” Jall smirked.
“Now we’re doing it because we don’t really have a choice,” Stafford nodded.
“Oh, question!” Yanick put her hand up, “How do we blow it up and NOT get blasted by the Qu’Eh?”
“Well, that’s the problem,” Stafford agreed, “Do the runabouts have enough firepower to take down that shield AND fight off the Qu’Eh ship?”
T’Parief moved to a wall panel and pulled up the tactical data.
“Not even close,” he replied.
“BUUAAARRRPPP!!!” Fifebee covered her mouth, “We REALLY need to fix that data transfer bug! This is DISGUSTINGLY organic!”
Jall tapped at the other rear compartment panel.
“You should see this,” he told Stafford.
“And I have a better way to destroy the Robellus facility,” T’Parief said, looking thoughtfully at Fifebee.
“I resent this,” Fifebee said flatly. She was standing in the Robellus facility. To her left was the rigged holo-relay that Sage had built. To her right, a stack of micro-torpedoes from the runabout. Loops of wire ran between them, leading to the device in Fifebee’s right hand. The Qu’Eh either didn’t know how the Starfleet crew had penetrated the shield before, or didn’t know how to adapt it to prevent it from happening again. Or that didn’t even know the shield had been penetrated. Either way, Fifebee had done her techno-thingy, and once again found herself in the sprawling transceiver complex.
“We need to be in space before we tip our hand,” Stafford said for the third time, his words received not over a comm channel but through the runabout computer and direct to Fifebee’s program, “And since your program is running on the runabout computer…”
“Which can barely handle the data bursts we’ve been sending!” Fifebee said, “My holographic data stream can barely overcome the comms traffic! If it was on a conventional frequency-“
“It’s not, so you’re perfect,” Jall cut in, “Any other sort of transmitter wouldn’t work, and a timer doesn’t give us the control we want. You’re just the little suicide bomber we needed.”
“I am NOT a-“
“Weapons delivery system?” T’Parief offered.
“You have all angered me,” Fifebee said flatly.
“Angry enough to blow something up in a devastating explosion?” T’Parief asked, sounding genuinely curious.
“Good, hold that thought,” Stafford said.
“You know, this is a remarkably insensitive use of Lt Comd Fifebee,” Dr. Wowryk pointed out.
“The right people for the right jobs,” Stafford shrugged. He turned to Jall, “You’re sure this is going to work?”
“Which part?” Jall replied.
“Any of it.”
“That would have been more encouraging if it hadn’t sounded like a question.”
“And you would have…shut up!” Jall huffed, “I’m opening a channel to the Qu’Eh,”
He tapped away for a few moments
“Or not,” he complained, “I still can’t get standard comms through all this traffic. Uhh…let’s see…more space on the higher freqs, but less range…hell we’re right beside them…aaannnnddd….”
There was a beep, then Manager Reevart appeared on the small screen.
“Finest quality,” Jall said, smiling pleasantly, “Have you had any issues with the sunspots during your orbit?”
“We have not,” Reevart looked surprised that an alien and non-employee would be familiar with the Qu’Eh custom of Friendly Banter. Or, as most of their slaves called it, pointless and obnoxious bullshit. “And your ascent? I trust all four vessels experienced no turbulence from the tropical storm forming?”
“Oh, there will be turbulence, but not from the storm. And I doubt our ships will be affected,” Jall said.
The smile froze on Reevart’s face.
“And what do you mean by that?”
“Robellus has been practising disreputable tactics with their customers on Kallar IV,” Jall said, keeping a straight face, “And worse, they’ve involved the Qu’Eh Corporate Authority and have contracted you to continue those tactics. If word of this gets out, say to Galactic Purchaser Reports…”
Reevart made that odd Qu’Eh religious gesture that looked so much like somebody checking off boxes on a clipboard.
“The Qu’Eh Corporate Authority offers only the highest quality service to all our customers, both consumer and corporate,” he intoned, lowering his eyes briefly. When they came back up, they were full of fire, “And if you intend to spread such false and slanderous accusations about us, we will see you in court!”
“The Kallars are on the verge of evolving into a new state of being,” Stafford cut in, “Robellus has been embedding an addictive signal into their broadcasts and preventing the Kallars from transforming, so they can study them. By hiring the Qu’Eh to manage their entertainment service, they’ve involved you in some very serious crimes.”
“The Qu’Eh Corporate Authority does not recognize your laws,” Reevart said coldly.
“That’s OK. We’re not really interested in coming after you,” Stafford shrugged, “We’re going to blow up the Robellus building and be on our way,”
Reevart’s eyes widened.
“THAT IS PROTECTED PROPERTY UNDER THE QU’EH/ROBELLUS SERVICE LEVEL AGREEMENT!” he shrieked, “YOU CAN’T-“
“Fifebee?” Stafford pressed a button.
There was a tiny point of light down on the surface as the Robellus facility was obliterated. With a sizzle of holographic sparks, Fifebee appeared. The runabout cockpit was abruptly filled with the stench of seared flesh and death.
“Merciful Lord,” Wowryk gulped, covering her face.
Stafford turned to see Fifebee standing there, her holographic body blackened and burned. Her hair was gone, and as she moved bloood and goo started oozing from cracks in her flesh.
“Oh come on,” he said, “You’re a hologram! That explosion didn’t hurt you in the slightest!”
“No,” Fifebee agreed, turning towards Stafford and leaning in to stare at him with empty eye sockets. Stafford cringed back, nearly puking over the front of his uniform, “But as I said, you have made me very angry. Deal with it, sir.”
“Ohhh, the nightmares I’ll have tonight,” Jall made a face.
“Comms are back online,” T’Parief reported, “Robellus sensor data out of the system has ceased. The incoming entertainment bands are no longer being rebroadcast,”
Reevart was still staring, stunned, from the screen.
“We will…” he gulped, “We will destroy you for this outrage!”
“Well, you say that,” Jall grinned, “But see, that Qu’Eh ship we were supposed to deliver? Yeah. Somebody destroyed it on us. And hey, here they come!”
Hundreds of vessels abruptly popped up on the sensor scope, coming in from the general direction of the outer system.
“Stafford to Stern,” Stafford hit the comm button, “Right on time. Ready to blow up the bad guys?”
“Anytime,” Stern’s voice replied, “The Kallars might have cheaped out on their intruder countermeasures, but this is the best remote control network I’ve ever seen. This whole fleet is just following us around like a bunch of puppies! Um, angry, murderous puppies that shoot phasers out of their eyes!”
They could hear buttons beeping, then a sudden barrage of phaser blasts filled the space between the Qu’Eh ship and the runabouts.
“Look,” Stafford said to Reevart, “Just tell Robellus that a bunch of aliens showed up and blew the place up. Does your contract really include fighting off an angry fleet?”
Reevart looked thoughtful.
“One moment,” he said.
Nearly an hour passed. On the screen, Reevart was slowly paging through a huge volume of actual paper that was presumably the esteemed Service Level Agreement. Stern’s finger was on the trigger of the now-hijacked Kallar evacuation fleet, and Wowryk and Fifebee were paying close attention to the runabout sensors.
“There!” Wowryk abruptly snapped, “Southern continent! Energy spike!”
“Another,” Fifebee confirmed. She still looked and reeked of burnt flesh, but at least she’d stopped oozing onto the carpet after Jall pointed out how organic she was being.
“Well,” Reevart finally said from the screen, “It appears that although we are expected to provide security for the facility, nowhere does it state that we must fight off a fleet of hostile spacecraft,”
“Tell them the fleet blew up the facility,” Jall suggested, “Maybe your quality score won’t get docked,”
Reevart cut the channel with an angry sound.
“The Qu’Eh are departing.” T’Parief reported.
“Thousands of energy readings,” Wowryk announced, “Hundreds of thousands! Life form readings on the planet are plummeting. They’re really evolving!”
“I guess that means we did good” Stafford stood up and stretched out his back, “Positive karma of the galaxy, and all that?”
There was a sudden light, then the ghostly figures of Runum and Liftum appeared in the cockpit.
“Congratulations,” Stafford said, not sure what else one could say to a newly evolved pair of energy beings.
“We have contacted the ancestors who went before us,” Runum said, as if he hadn’t spoken, “They wish us to convey two messages: First, it’s about time somebody on the corporeal realm dealt with this situation. Second, we are taking our things with us. Kindly take your people off them, unless they wish to find themselves suddenly in a vacuum.”
With that, they vanished.
Stafford and Jall both stared blankly at the empty space. Luckily, T’Parief was on the ball and quickly beamed Stern and his team off the Kallar ship and onto their runabout.
The ships vanished. Then Kallar IV itself disappeared. Kallar V and III were next. Then II and VI. The last of the planets, then the star itself just winked out of existence, leaving the four runabouts drifting in interstellar space.
“Assholes!” Jall snapped.
“No kidding!” Stafford said, his voice indignant, “We help them out, and now suddenly they’re too good to at least say ‘thanks’?”
“So much for positive karma,” Yanick offered.
“Set a course back to Matria Prime,” Stafford ordered, climbing to his feet, “And please, somebody tell me we loaded up the replicator with decent food patterns before the Checklist exploded,”
“Course laid in,” Yanick replied, “You want full speed, most direct route?”
Stafford thought for a moment.
“Naw,” he said, “Nothing for us there but bureaucracy and sitting around waiting for Jeffery to finish with the ship. Scenic route, Lt Yanick!”
The runabout had been underway for about an hour when Fifebee came into the rear cabin, looking for Dr Wowryk. She had restored her typical features, though beneath her uniform she had decided to add a small brand in the shape of a micro-torpedo at the nape of her neck as a way of marking the event.
“Doctor,” Fifebee said politely, “May I ask a question?”
“Is it respectful and dignified?”
“Not that that’s ever stopped anybody before,” Wowryk sighed, “I’m sorry what’s the question?”
“How does your religion cope with the realization that organic beings can evolve as the Kallars have? And V’ger? And presumably the Q? Does this not clash with your concept of God? Angels? Heavenly beings? And as the Hazardous Team found signs that the Kallars on the evacuation ships had evolved a century ago, why did they not come back to assist their comrades?”
Wowryk placed her hands on her lap.
“Fifebee, I believe that existence is like…like a cake. A big, multi-layered cake. Like a wedding cake, perhaps. God is at the peak. We are near the bottom. But there are many layers that one may climb before reaching the divine. And different ways of climbing them. As for why the older Kallars didn’t come back…I image they weren’t permitted to interfere with our layer. In any case, I don’t see the issue. If you like, I believe I have some fascinating Bible studies around here somewhere that discuss that sort of thing. We do have weeks before we arrive at Haven, after all,”
“That will not be necessary,” Fifebee said quickly, “I was simply…curious. Thank you, Doctor,”
“Of course,” Wowryk smiled.
Wowryk went over to the replicator, suddenly hungry. For cake.
Meanwhile, planes of existence away…
“Oh no, not again!” Q groaned.
“What is it?” Q asked. Not the same Q, but still Q.
“Another ascending race knocking on the door,” Q replied. He raised his voice. “GO AWAY! There are NO vacancies in this continuum!” he snapped, “Go find some other place to live out your eternity!”
“We could just trap them in a nice pocket universe,” Q suggested.
“Right, because that worked out SO well with the Selvan!” Q snapped.
“Good point. Besides, they’re leaving anyway,” Q agreed.
“Well,” Q said, “As long as they keep to themselves and leave us alone, it’s fine.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Then we trap them in a pocket universe inside a pocket universe,”
“Oh, Q,” Q said admiringly, “You are a clever one!”
“Thank you, Q,”