Author: Anthony Butler
“Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.”
“It’s a nice day to govern a starbase, isn’t it, Lieutenant?” Commander Filip Gustav said as he stared out over the station’s operation center. “Kind of balmy. Peaceful.”
“The station isn’t balmy, sir,” Lieutenant Melina Voyd, Gustav’ Betazoid first officer, said as she stood next to her commanding officer, a bear of a man; sturdy, of Nordic descent, she fancied. “It’s perfectly climate controlled. Would you like it to be balmy?”
“No, no. It was just an expression. Never mind.”
“Would you like to see the morning’s freight reports?” Voyd asked
“Are they interesting? Intriguing, even?”
“I’m afraid not. A few shipments going out to outfit the new communications array in Sector 21202, a relief ship to Cardassia, and a Tellarite freighter carrying eighteen tons of potato salad to the Federation Day picnic on Kaverius Prime.”
“Did you say…potato salad?” the Commander asked, his eyebrow arched.
“Eighteen tons? For God’s sake, somebody check to make sure it’s not radioactive.”
“We’re right on top of that, sir.”
“Still.” Gustav scratched his head. “Eighteen tons!”
“It’s a big crowd, sir. The fried chicken is being delivered via Galaxy-class starship.”
Gustav chuckled. “Do I even want to know who’s bringing soda?”
“The Bolians, sir.”
“I was being rhetorical.”
“It would be great if you’d give me a heads up next time.”
“Yes. But not a very good one, I’m afraid.”
Gustav nodded. “That’s a shame.” He turned around. “Well, if the morning won’t get any more interesting than this, I’m going to head to my office and do some real wor–”
Suddenly the red alert klaxons blared, and Voyd’s hands were instantly on her panel. “Sir! A Klingon Bird of Prey just decloaked fifty kilometers off our docking bay, weapons hot!”
“Delivering baked beans?” Gustav asked wryly.
“They’re firing on the Milwaukee, sir!”
“Is that she ship with the beer?”
Voyd shook her head, trying not to show her annoyance. “It’s the Federation freighter that’s delivering supplies to Cardassia.”
“Get the civilian traffic out of the way. Target the Klingon ship and fire weapons, engines only.”
“The Klingons are going to evasive…” Voyd said as she ran the weapons control.
Gustav watched the Klingon ship bob and weave on the screen, maneuvering around the helplessly cornered Federation freighter. “Why would the Klingons…”
“Science readings, sir,” the voice of Ensign Eddie Kasper piped up from the aft science console. “Those aren’t Klingons aboard the Bird of Prey…”
“Then who?” Gustav asked, turning. “Don’t tell me the Bajorans…”
“No, actually,” Voyd asked, glancing up from her docking console. “The lifesigns are Cardassian.”
“Why would Cardassians be attacking their own shipment?”
“For the irony?” Kasper offered.
“Also reading one human lifesign on the lead ship.”
“I don’t care if they’re Iconian. Contact that ship. And target quantum torpedoes. They need to know we intend to defend that shipment.”
“We’re getting a response,” Voyd said.
“Put it on screen.”
The viewscreen crackled to life with the image of a tall, leather- clad woman with long, blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. She leaned against the command chair on the bridge of the old Bird-of-Prey, and folded her leather-gloved hands as she regarded Gustav with a skeptical eye. “Morning, Commander,” she said in a rich British accent. “Sorry to interrupt breakfast.”
“Stand down immediately, and surrender your ships,” Gustav said. “I don’t know who you are, but you are in violation of interstellar law. Lower your shields so we can beam aboard and arrest you.”
The woman giggled impishly, and put her wrists out. “Oh, by all means, Commander, take me away! I’ve been such a bad girl!”
“Leave that freighter alone!” Gustav rumbled.
The woman’s voice grew serious. “‘Fraid I can’t do that, old boy.” She gave a slight nod, off-screen. “You see, this cargo is going to the Cardassian interim government. It’s not going to the people who need it. That’s where I come in.”
“Quantums ready to fire at your command,” Voyd said from behind Gustav.
“She’s beaming the cargo off the freighter, sir! Right through their shields!” Kasper said.
“Nice talking to you, Commander,” the woman said, snapping off a mock-salute.
“Who are you?” Gustav demanded.
“The name is Bain. Deidre Bain.”
“Fire quantums, disable those ships!” Gustav ordered.
Voyd’s hands skipped over the controls, but she looked up, shaking her head. “Can’t do it, sir. They just cloaked.”
“Well, then. We’ve got a problem,” Gustav muttered. “We’ve always known Cardassian privateers were a concern, but this is the first raiding party I know of led by a human.”
“A human named Bain,” Voyd said thoughtfully.
“That name mean anything to you?” Gustav asked.
Voyd shrugged. “Nope.”
“Something isn’t right,” Captain David Conway said, after stepping out of his readyroom.
“Did you put your shoes on the wrong feet again, sir?” Ford asked from the command chair.
“Do you still work here?” Conway snapped, stepping up toward the command area. “I mean, something doesn’t feel right around here.” He glanced around at the other bridge staff. The beeping consoles. People silently going about their jobs. Something was just…wrong.
“Everyone seems too…”
“Good-looking?” Ford asked.
“No,” Conway said, rubbing his chin.
“Efficient?” Ford offered.
“Nope.” Conway glanced around again. “Everyone’s too quiet. Nobody’s talking.”
“It’s a busy day, sir. We’re cataloging a quasar.”
“Yeah. I know, you’re just fascinated by this mission,” Conway said, and sat down in the chair beside Ford. “Sorry they can’t all be barn- burners.”
“I can’t help it if I want a little action every now and then. When was the last time anything interesting happened around here?”
“The giant bunnies come to mind,” Saral said softly from the helm consoles.
“Please don’t bring them up again,” Ford said, rubbing his eyes.
“You’re the one who fed them carrots,” Conway said.
“Bunnies are SUPPOSED to eat carrots!”
“Not the bunnies on Falspar Seven!” Conway snapped. “Now why did I come out here again?”
“Because something just isn’t right?” Ford offered.
“Yeah,” Conway said. “Are we anywhere on that?”
“Oh, yes sir,” Ford said. “A full investigation is in the offing.”
“You’re patronizing me, aren’t you, Ford?”
“Your investigative skills are finely honed, Captain.”
“Why haven’t we switched chairs yet?” Conway asked, staring at Ford.
“That’s because you’re supposed to stand up when I come in and move back to the helm. That’s the way we rehearsed it, damn it.” He looked around the bridge. “For Pete’s sake, you people know this. When I come on the bridge, Ford goes to the helm console. Then Ensign Garrity gets up from the helm, and relieves the crewman at the auxiliary science console…”
“Skyler, sir,” the crewman spoke up. “Brenna Skyler. Grew up on Jupiter, but will always be a Martian girl at heart…”
“Whatever,” Conway said, cutting her off. “And then Skyler, whoever she is, goes into the turbolift, and disappears to whatever netherworld she goes to, until we need her again.”
“I like to play chess,” Skyler said, sinking behind her station a little.
“You hurt Skyler’s feelings,” Ford said, mock-pouting.
“She’ll live,” Conway said. “Now go sit at the helm so I can sit out here and feel useful.”
“I’d rather not, sir.”
Conway glared at him. “And what the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“I’m afraid I can’t go into any more detail at the moment.”
“Are you messing with me? It’s not my birthday, so…”
Ford held up a hand. “Don’t worry, sir. You said you never wanted a surprise party, and we’ve honored that. We’ll never throw you a party of any kind.”
Conway folded his arms. “Good. Now get out of my chair.”
“Can’t do it.”
“Why the hell not?”
“You’re in a mood, this morning, aren’t you?” Ford asked.
“Maybe. And you sure aren’t making it any better.”
“That wounds me,” Ford said. “Still, it’s best if you go back to your readyroom for…” Ford glanced down at a readout on the chair arm. “Another six minutes.”
Conway scratched his head. “What’s happening in six minutes?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you.”
“ARGHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Conway growled, yanking at his hair.
“You’re really going to regret being mean to me in…five minutes and eighteen seconds.”
“Because he’s doing something you should have done a long time ago, dear,” a voice said from the back of the bridge, and Conway froze.
“Alexa?” he asked without turning around.
“You’re five minutes early,” Ford said, glancing down at his readout. “Well, four minutes, fifty-two seconds.”
“Stop trying to act like Larkin,” Conway said, and walked up to the back of the bridge to join Dr. Alexa Lanham, who was wearing a flowing white silk robe, and matching culottes and blouse. She finished it off with a wide-brimmed hat.
“Are we going on a bee-keeping expedition?” he asked.
“No, silly,” Lanham said, pinching Conway’s cheek. “We’re going on a vacation. On the honeymoon we never had.”
“Because it’s obviously your anniversary today sir!” Ford blurted quickly, jogging up to Conway’s side.
“Yes!” Conway said, nodding at Ford. “Yes. Yes it is. And what a great job you did planning a little getaway for us on our anniversary. Two or three days…”
“Weeks,” Ford said, leaning toward Conway.
Conway turned on Ford. “That’s almost a month!”
“Isn’t that nice?” Alexa asked. “We both have the leave saved up. So why not?”
“And you’ll love where you’re going,” Ford said, patting Conway on the back. “I’ve heard lots of good things about the place.”
One phrase cycled through Conway’s mind: Please be Fondar’s NASCAR Planet. Please be Fondar’s NASCAR Planet. Please be Fondar’s NASCAR Planet. . .
“Yes,” Alexa said. “Rubicon Three is very nice this time of year.”
“Rubicon…Three?” Conway asked, cocking his head. “The planet of pleasure?”
“They don’t call it that,” Lanham said. “But yes. There’s lots of pleasure to be had. Frommer’s Galactiguide rates it second only to Risa. It has everything Risa has except for the paying for sex.”
“Shame,” Ford said, shaking his head. “Anyway, you two will have a great time.”
Conway looked back at Ford. “Wait a minute…I can’t go off on a three-week trip. Commander Larkin’s away at a positronics conference with Lieutenant Kamtezen.”
“What’s your point?” Ford asked. “Are you saying I can’t command the ship for a while? Larkin will be back in 10 days, at which time I’ll gladly turn the reigns of the Aerostar over to her.”
“If there’s a ship left,” Gellar offered.
“Shush,” Ford said. “Don’t worry, Captain. I’ll take good care of the ship.”
“And I’m taking care of Bucky,” Gellar said half-heartedly. “Your corgi’s in good hands with me, sir.”
“And this is non-negotiable,” Lanham said, cupping a hand on Conway’s face. “We need this time together. Badly.”
Conway stared blankly at Lanham a moment. She was right, though. Over the last year, she’d gone off on a number of independent science expeditions. First to the former Cardassian Union. Then to investigate the snarkeling snorkwillies.of Abysma Prime. Then to scale the sideways mountain on Mountainius. Meanwhile, Conway had gone about the daily business of captaining the Aerostar.
Besides, they’d never had a proper honeymoon, due in large part to the fact that he began serving 30 days in a Federation penal colony immediately after the wedding ceremony. And all because he’d, quite innocently, attempted to alter time. The Federation had such a narrow view of “right” and “wrong.”
The closest thing to a honeymoon they’d had, in fact, was the conjugal visit…
“Conjugal visit,” Conway reminisced, his eyes glossing over.
“What?” Lanham asked.
“Oh. Nothing.” He looked at Ford. “Fine, then. You’re in command. I guess.”
“I won’t let you down, Captain,” Ford said, and gave a little salute. “Your runabout is warming up on the launch pad now.”
“That’s what your big, important countdown was all about?” Conway asked.
“Nope,” Ford said, and looked down at his readout again. “Five seconds.”
“Then what was it about?”
“This!” Ford said, and watched the counter reach zero. Conway and Lanham were quite suddenly gripped in the blue glow of a transporter beam, and in a swirl of particles disappeared from the Aerostar bridge.
“They’re aboard the Kissimmee,” Saral reported, looking up from the ops board.
“He’s gonna be ticked,” Gellar said from tactical as Ford sat back down in the command chair.
“Fine by me. Lanham’s the one who’ll have to be alone with him for a month.”
“Just tell me one thing,” Gellar said. “Did you set all this up to get rid of Conway for a month? Or is it because you’re hungry for power and want to be in command? Or do you genuinely care about the captain and his relationship with his wife?”
Ford thought about that a moment. “I’d say you can safely remove at least one of those possibilities. Care to guess which one?”
Gellar snickered. “I’m pretty sure I know.”
Personal Log, Commander Kristen Larkin,
Stardate 57904.3. We are on schedule to arrive later this morning at Galadrel Six for the Federation’s annual Positronics Conference, which this year is entitled “Positronics: Whoa!”
As an android, I am fascinated by all things positronic, and thus quite eager to reach the conference, at least within the parameters of my emotion program.
All systems, both shipwide and Larkin-wide, are functioning normally.
“I thought androids didn’t lie,” Lieutenant Kamtezen said, reclining and putting his feet up on the Penobscot’s dashboard.
“I am not sure where you heard that,” Larkin said. “In any event, I did not lie.”
Kametzen raised his orange, hairless brow. “So you are going to the positronics conference, then?”
“Of course not. As we discussed on the way here, I am going to attend the plenary session at the positronics conference, then I am going to take the runabout to another conference in a nearby system.”
“Penguins on Ice?” Kamtezen asked.
“You say that derisively,” Larkin said in a warning tone.
“Hey, how you spend your free time is up to you.”
“At any rate, I did not lie. I said that we were on schedule to arrive at the conference, and that I was eager to attend. I am, in fact, eager to attend the positronics conference. I am equally eager to attend the penguin show on Frigidia Two. Are those facts mutually exclusive?”
“I guess not,” Kamtzen said.
“I am glad we agree on that.”
“Speaking of agreements, about the other thing…”
“Yes,” Larkin said. “I concur. I gave the matter many nanoseconds of thought. We should break up.”
Kamtzen shifted a little in his seat. “You sure about that? I mean, I thought we had fun the last several months…”
“I enjoyed our relationship a great deal, and compiled significant research into human custom. Your genetic gender switching disorder was particularly fascinating.”
“You’re making me sound like a science experiment.”
Larkin turned in her chair to face Kamtezen. She took his hand. “You are far more than that. You were a very important step in my romantic life. We learned a lot about ourselves. We learned about each other. It was time well spent. You were, and still are, extremely important to me.”
“You’re reciting something from some book, aren’t you?” Kamtezen asked.
“It is not you. It is me.”
“Yeah,” Kamtezen said. “Well, no hard feelings, anyway. Although I will miss your retracting rotors.”
Larkin stiffened. “Please do not tell anyone about those. It is…not widely known.”
Kamtezen nodded. “I suppose it’s a good thing we’re splitting up at the conference. You know, not cramping each other’s style. Moving on. Maybe I’ll find someone new at one of the exhibits.”
“I wish you success in all of your endeavors.”
“You’re doing it again.”
“I hope we can still be friends.”
Kamtezen pushed up out of his chair and headed out of the cabin. “I’m going to get my luggage.”
“We must go our separate…” Larkin stopped talking as the doors closed. She allowed a small smile. The relationship with Kamtezen had been beneficial, but she appreciated this newfound freedom. Being in a relationship was a wholly new and exciting experience, but it was also cumbersome and limiting. Talking to someone who could only process one thought every few seconds was frustrating. At that moment, Larkin resolved that her future relationships would lack the underpinnings of typical humanoid “coupling” and would instead focus on the viscera of lovemaking and the thrill of meeting someone new. But once the novelty wore off, she would discontinue the relationship. Her future lovers would be advised of this well ahead of time, so no one would get hurt.
According to recent statistics, there were an abundance of males in the quadrant who would subscribe to that way of thinking.
Larkin made a mental note to speak to her father about this revelation. He would no doubt be very proud of her for having such an enlightened worldview.
NON-REGISTERED CARDASSIAN PRIVATEER SHIP VORACIOUS APPETITE FOR JUSTICE
Deidre Bain strode onto the bridge, glancing around at her bridge crew, all of whom were busy tapping away at their stations as the Voracious entered orbit around Cardassia Six.
“Report,” she said, sliding up next to her primary lieutenant, Limpet.
The Cardassian bristled at her jovial attitude and angled toward her. “The refugee encampment has received our signal and acknowledges. They’re ready to receive the supplies.”
“By all means, beam them down, Limpet!”
“Grummmr…supplies…” the Cardassian manning the weapons control system growled.
“You have a problem, Besket?”
“Not so much a problem, CAPtain, as an issue with our recent selection of targets.”
“Right then,” Deidre said. “So you’re suggesting that the refugees on Cardassia Six don’t need supplies?”
“Not at all,” Besket muttered. “But how human of you to misunderstand my meaning.”
“I try. What, then, pray tell, is your meaning, Besket?”
“We’re attacking small convoys. Meaningless shipments. Grains, small replicators, industrial construction elements. Nothing major. Nothing grand!”
“You expected the pirate life to be grand, eh?” Deidre said, crossing the cramped Klingon bridge to face Besket. “Well, I have news for you. This life isn’t dignified or grand. It’s grunt work, and elbow grease, and a fair amount of ruddy determination. If you try to romanticize it, if you try to go on a grand adventure, get a story to take back to your friends back in Thobor District, you’re on the wrong ship.”
“Don’t overreact,” Besket said, backing away. “I’m not questioning your leadership. Merely our choice of targets.”
Deidre leaned in close, grabbing the front of Besket’s tunic and pulling him toward her. “I welcome any and all of your suggestions.”
Besket looked down at the blinking light on his station. “Th-this, Captain Bain. I recommend this…”
Deidre angled her head so she could read Besket’s readout. “Fascinating. A cache of technology that could be resold to the highest bidder. Along with a prize that the Federation, Romulans, and Klingons would no doubt fight to claim.” She turned back toward her officer at conn. “Helm…prepare to alter course. How long would it take us to get to Galadriel Six at maximum warp?”
GALADRIEL SIX YNGWIE MALMSTEIN CONFERENCE CENTER AND CASINO
Larkin reviewed the files in her memory banks as she studied the ancient duotronic computer. The M-5 replica sat in the exhibition kiosk, blinking innocently.
“Why, hello there,” a dark-skinned man said, walking up to Larkin and extending his hand. He studied her uniform. “You’re Starfleet?”
She limply shook the man’s hand, her eyes still trained on the M-5. “Yes.”
“Starfleet officers are always fascinated by the M-5. You know the story, right?”
“I have it memorized, yes.”
“Well, then you’re a true fan. Did you know that the M-5 was the fifth prototype of its kind?”
“Hence the designation ‘five,’” Larkin said flatly.
“Well, yes, but there’s more. So much more.”
“I am sorry. I did not get your name.”
“Daystrom. Vick Daystrom. Daystrom Corporate Computronic Consulting.”
“Indeed. That makes sense. You are related to the late Doctor Daystrom, then?”
“Yep,” Vick said, thumping his chest proudly. “By three or nine degrees of separation. There’s some cousins…and some marriages in there. But we’re related. Somehow.”
“So what’s your interest in positronics?”
Larkin glanced at the man. “My interest is of a…personal nature.”
“Boyfriend? Yeah, I got that. I know what you mean.”
“I do not have a boyfriend. I am single.”
“Really?” Vick asked, sidling up to Larkin. “Where are you staying? The Cyber-Sheraton or the Hyatt Galaxy?”
“I have a runabout in orbit.”
“Even better. Privacy!”
“I am not sure I understand, nor do I wish to. If you will excuse me, I would rather speak with the computer.”
“The M-5? It doesn’t really speak much. Just sits there.”
Larkin reached out and tapped a number of controls on the block-shaped computer’s blinking surface. It buzzed to life.
“KILL!” it said in a robotic voice. “DESTROY. ALL. HUMANS.”
“Fascinating,” Larkin said, studying the computer with interest.
“It’s never done that before…” Vick trailed off.
“Your scientists have done an excellent job replicating this technology,” Larkin said. “They even included the computer’s insane, murderous intent.”
“Cool,” Vick said.
“LOCK. ONTO. STARSHIPS. DESTROY. ALL. FEDERATION. VESSELS!”
Larkin patted the blinking box. “You are as engaging and enigmatic as the brochure indicated, M-5. Enjoy the conference.”
“DIE! KILL! KILL!”
“Good old M-5,” Larkin said, and walked off. “By the way, Mister Daystrom, you might wish to deactivate that computer. Preferably before it obtains a phaser.”
“Thanks,” Vick said meekly, staring at the machine.
As Larkin continued past the other booths, she looked ahead to see a familiar being, with distinctive, creamy white skin. He was standing at one of the other exhibits, which advertized in big, rainbow-colored block lettering a “kinetic brainwave conduction amplifier.” To Larkin, the device more resembled a big orange piece of lasagne. But it was pretty.
She gave the hunk of twinkling metal a glance, then turned back to the familiar figure. She tapped him on the shoulder. “Data? Is it you?”
The android turned around, staring at Larkin blankly.
“I heard you blew up in an exploding thaleron device!” she exclaimed, throwing her arms around the android and hugging him tightly. “I am so glad you were rebuilt! I know exactly how you feel, Data! As you recall, I once threw myself down into the molten core of a penguin- populated planet, only to be rebuilt weeks later. The experience is…rejuvenating.”
The android cocked its head at Larkin. “I am B-4.”
“Before what?” Larkin asked quizzically.
He reached out and touched her nose. “I am B-4.”
“Good news,” Larkin said, pressing on. “I am recently single. So if you would like to rekindle the romance that developed four years ago, when the Explorer brought your damaged runabout aboard, I would be pleased to entertain the notion. I have a runabout of my own in orbit, and its gyro stabilizers are in perfect working order.”
“I am B-4.”
“Yes, you said that. And I must admit, your response is confounding.”
“B-4! Get back here!” a harsh British voice called out and Larkin executed her “eye-rolling” program.
“Jean-Luc Picard,” she said dully.
The bald, elder-statesman and captain extraordinaire shouldered through the crowd and took B-4 by the arm. “Excuse me. I’m afraid I became separated from my android when…”
“Your android?” Larkin asked, her anger program executing.
“Wait. You…you’re from that, that ship, aren’t you?” Picard visibly winced. “And you all tend to travel in groups. If you’ll excuse us, we’ll be on our…”
“What is that remark supposed to mean?” Larkin asked as she launched anger program phase 2.
“You Aerostar people are distinctly…bizarre. And I want no part of it. Nothing personal.”
“Respectfully, Captain Picard, I must dispute your claim.”
Just then, Lt. Kamtezen strolled up. “Kristen! I know we said we’d give each other some space, but I have to know. Did you break up with me because of my smaltz cycle? I know you don’t like the powdery discharge but it’s perfectly normal for Bewhal of a certain age…”
“I am B-4,” B-4 said.
Larkin looked from B-4 to Kamtezen, then whirled on a heel and walked off. Struggling to keep composure, Picard dragged B-4 off in the opposite direction.
“Was it something I said?” Kamtezen asked.
“Deidre!” Limpet called out, looking up from his panel.
Deidre slung a leg over the arm of her chair and yawned. “What is it, Limpet?’
“The Enterprise is leaving orbit ahead of schedule. And they’re moving fast!”
Deidre leaned forward, clasping her gloved hands. “Is that a fact?”
“Yes, Captain. That means the Conference Center is defenseless! Yngwie Malmstein is ours for the taking!”
“Very good,” Deidre said, putting her feet back down on the deck and standing up. “In that case, what are we waiting for?” She giggled merrily. “Let’s go shopping!”
“Where’ve you been?” Kamtezen asked Larkin as she sat down in one of the seats at the back row of Frank Zappa Auditorium, where the plenary session of the positronics conference was about to take place.
“I have been studying the other exhibits,” Larkin said. “As, I would assume, have you.”
“Yes,” Kamtezen said. “I’ve been studying some of the multitronic computer core interfaces they’re using on the new Outlander- class prototype.”
“I had planned to visit that exhibit on my way out.”
“Some of them might be adapted for your neural pathways. I got the brochure, in case, you know, you wanted to look at it.”
Larkin smiled softly at Kamtezen. “Are you still not over me? I understand…”
“No, I wasn’t talking as your, ex, or whatever…I was talking as your engineer!”
“My nanocordical fibers will be just fine without you, Kam. You do not have to worry.”
“Who said I was worried?” Kamtezen muttered, turning to face the front as the stage lights dimmed.
“Oh, good. The plenary session is about to begin. I have been looking forward to the keynote speaker with great anticipation.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice boomed over the godmike. “We regret to inform you that this morning’s keynote speech ‘Borg Implants: A Pain in the Occipital Lobe,’ featuring Seven of Nine, has been canceled due to a last minute scheduling conflict with the speaker.”
The crowd booed, some standing up and yelling at the bare stage, shaking their fists in impotent fury.
“We do, however, have a replacement. Gathered species and crystalline entities, please give a warm ‘Positronics: Whoa!’ welcome to Ensign Paul Hargrove, late of the U.S.S. Voyager!”
“Hargrove?” Larkin asked, exchanging a glance with Kamtezen.
The ensign dashed onto the stage, still wearing his old-style black Voyager uniform. He waved out at the crowd.
“Hello, everyone! How are you doing? Everybody as pumped up about positronics as I am?”
The crowd responded with deafening silence.
“That’s great!” Hargrove said, pacing the stage, making eye contact with everyone in the audience. “I just want to tell you how glad I am to be here on Blautanis Seven.”
A voice called out something from offstage, and he glanced to the side.
“I mean Galadriel Six! Of course. Good old Galadriel. So, as many of you know, Seven of Nine couldn’t make it to today’s event. But she asked me to come in her place, and sends her best wishes. Well, at least in Borg terms.”
“This sucks!” a voice called out from the crowd.
“Right. So…I guess you all wonder what it’s like to work with a rehabilitated Borg drone on your ship? It had its ups and downs, believe me. But all in all, Seven of Nine was a great fellow crewmember and an inspiration to us all. I’ll never forget when she walked by me on the way to the bridge one day. I could tell she was in a hurry, so I didn’t strike up a conversation with her. Which is not like me, I should say. Anyway, I was on my way down to waste extraction, when I got a comm from Lieutenant Billings in the cargo office. He asked me to come down and…”
Larkin leaned over to Kamtezen and whispered: “This must end.”
“It’s rude to leave in the middle of a presentation,” Kamtezen whispered back.
“Then we have to come up with a discrete interruption so we can slip out unnoticed.”
“Oh, so now we’re a ‘we’ again, huh?” Kamtezen asked.
“Do not be difficult.”
“Just be patient and listen,” Kamtezen said. “You might learn something about human behavior.”
Deidre Bain leaned against a console in the debarkation bay in the belly of her Bird of Prey, as the ship made its final descent on Galadriel.
She looked around at her band of privateers as they shrugged on their vests and checked the power levels on their weapons. They were a scruffy group, but they were capable. They numbered only twenty-six, small even by privateer standards. And, unlike some of the Pure- Cardassian crews, hers was a mix of Cardassians, Yridians, Liseppians, Kovarians and one human (that being her).
In her seventh month of crusading for the rights of the underserved Cardassians of the slowly-rebuilding empire, Deidre fancied that she’d done a pretty good job assembling her crew, putting aside for the moment how difficult it was getting them to respect her, much less follow her orders.
“Status, Marrazz?” she asked her Y’ridian tactical specialist.
The rodent-like crewman looked up from his scans. “We’re descending on the roof of Yngwie Malmstein now.”
“Excellent. And the cloak’s holding?”
“Nobody’s shooting at us yet,” Marrazz hissed.
“That’s what I like to hear, old boy,” Deidre grinned, and looked up at the glowering Besket, giving him an “I-told-you-so” grin.
“What is Yngwie Malmstein’s armament?” Besket asked Marrazz.
“Nothing we can’t handle. Light phase cannons. A few medium- range photon grenade launchers on the roof.”
“Take out the armaments as soon as we decloak. We don’t want to get shot as we debark,” Limpet ordered.
“Capital thinking, Limpet,” Deidre said with an approving grin. “Now then, you blokes remember your battle training, right? I know it’s been a while since we’ve done hand-to-hand.”
The privateers responded with a chorus of grunts.
“And you all know the plan?” she asked, glancing around.
“Of course we do,” Besket said defensively. “We penetrate Yngwie Malmstein. Then we travel downward through its internal tunnels until we reach Frank Zappa.”
Limpet held up his padd, which contained a map of the conference center. “Once we breach Frank Zappa, we’ll find what we’re looking for.”
“Expect heavy resistance throughout Malmstein, all the way to Zappa. Don’t stop moving, no matter what. Keep your heads up, and keep shooting anyone and anything that gets in your way. Disruptors on stun, people. We’re not brutes.”
The whole group grunted, irritated, and reset their weapons.
Deidre sighed inwardly. They were still rough around the edges, but they’d come around eventually.
The Voracious shook slightly, the deck rattling beneath Deidre’s feet.
“All hands, we’ve touched down on Malmstein,” the voice of Speers echoed over the comm.
“You heard him. Prepare for debarkation.” She pointed at the Kovarian at the door controls. “Duff! Hatch-down. Let’s look alive people. We don’t leave without Seven of Nine!”
“There’s no way we can fail,” Limpet said confidently as the milling crowd, weapons high, descended the lowering plank onto the conference center’s roof. Besket just glared at him.
“It’s a hard job,” Lt. Commander Ford said, swirling the stirrer in his cranberry juice and vodka as he leaned easily on the bar in the Starlight Lounge-A, the Aerostar-A’s Guinanco-run watering hole. “Command has heavy responsibilities. You’ve got to learn when to take action, and when to sit back and let your people do their jobs.”
“And when to spend your shift drinking and hitting on the bartender?” Wendy Wheedling, the head bartender said with a knowing smile, leaning forward, resting her chin on her fists. The rosy-faced young woman, so different from Mirk, was hired by the lounge manager, Harvey Upshaw, after Conway threw hot coffee in the last bartender’s face, permanently scarring him.
“Exactly,” Ford said. “I’m glad you understand.”
“I think I’m starting to,” Wheedling said. “But won’t you get in trouble?”
“Who’s going to report me? You?”
“Good point,” she said. “I’m here to serve you.”
“And I like that about you.”
“Can I get you another drink?”
“Actually, I was wondering when you get off,” Ford said.
Wheedling smiled, batting her eyes. “That all depends on you.”
“Good answer,” Ford said, and drained the rest of his drink. “Let’s get out of here.”
Ford’s communicator bleeped. “Saral to Ford.”
Ford smiled. “My cabin or yours? Or the captain’s cabin? Or stellar cartography?”
Wheedling cocked her head. “Isn’t that your combadge?”
“Saral to Ford, please respond.”
“Ignore it,” Ford said, waving a dismissive hand. “Are you double- jointed? Any weird birthmarks I should know about?”
“Commander Ford,” Saral’s voice said again. “You have an open channel. I can hear you, and the bartender, perfectly clear. Please report to the bridge immediately. Starfleet has an urgent communique for you.”
“Urgent?” Ford grinned, looking at Wheedling. “Sorry, babe, but I’m an important guy. You know how that is. Don’t worry though, you’ll be test-driving a classic Ford very soon.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Wheedling said, waving sweetly, as Ford walked out the door.
“Your luck has run out, boy,” Admiral Harlan Baxter rumbled from the viewscreen.
Ford stood in the middle of the bridge feeling very, very small before the giant torso of the Admiral on the viewscreen. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t follow.”
“Course you don’t. I mean you been out there chasing comets a while now, right?”
“Well, not comets in particular. But yeah, comet-like substances.”
“Good enough. Look, where’s Captain Conway?”
“He’s…on his honeymoon.”
“Didn’t he get married a year ago?”
Ford shifted from foot to foot. “He’s been busy. Anyway, this is their anniversary so we thought we’d plan a trip for them.”
“Great,” Harlan growled, pushing a cigar in his mouth and puffing on it. “Rrrs Lrkn.”
He pulled out the cigar. “LARKIN!”
Ford hopped back a little, nearly falling over. “She’s at a positronics conference.”
Harlan put the cigar back in his mouth. “Grrsallatlevs izyou.”
Ford bowed inelegantly. “I stand ready to assist you, Admiral. I won’t let you down.”
Just then, the turbolift door opened behind Ford. Wendy Wheedling stood in the doorway, a chilled glass in her hand. “Did you want another beverage, Commander? Another vodka with cranberry juice to drink while on duty?”
Ford waved her away. “Not now, Wendy. Go back belowdecks and…polish your bar or something.”
“Pssydrnk,” Harlan mumbled.
“Sir,” Ford said, tugging at his uniform collar. “That’s not what it looks like, I swear. I was just…”
Harlan leaned over and stabbed some controls on his nearby desk. “Rrzzz your orders. ‘Dgo myself, brtthPrthfndrs nnnthrside ovva Alphqrdrnt.”
Ford blinked. “What?”
“He’d go himself,” Gellar whispered, leaning forward from his station. “But the Pathfinder’s on the other side of the Alpha Quadrant. His office is on his wife’s ship now. Hey, I’m finally starting to get the hang of this!”
“And he made fun of my choice of drink?” Ford snickered.
Harlan gave him a stiff glare, and Ford immediately retreated to the command chair and sat down, his knees weak from fear.
“Crrrdnts. Grrthrr anmeet daffdambasrrCarddsa.”
Ford looked back at Gellar, who shrugged.
“Something about coordinates. He wants us to go there and meet Daffyd Ab Hugh.”
Harlan yanked his cigar out. “THE FEDERATION AMBASSADOR TO CARDASSIA!”
Ford shrunk back in the command chair. “Yes, sir. Understood. Very good, sir. Aerostar out!”
Harlan continued to glare at him.
“CLOSE THE FREAKING CHANNEL!” Ford snapped, glaring back at Gellar.
Gellar laughed softly as he pressed a control, and Harlan’s surly visage disappeared.
“That went well,” he said.
“Ensign Garrity, change course and engage when ready at Warp Six,” Ford muttered and got out of the command chair. “What’s our ETA?”
Garrity checked his panel and glanced up. “Five hours, six minutes, sir.”
“Good. Then I’ll be down in the lounge continuing to hit on our bartender.”
“You make us all proud, spanky,” Gellar said, shaking his head as Ford headed up to the aft turbolift.
“…which is why Neelix’s jannix broth was always too salty for my tastes,” Hargrove said, sitting back on a stool on stage in the Frank Zappa Auditorium. “Funny story about Neelix, by the way. I was organizing the gelpack storage closet on Deck Eight when he came up holding a big bowl of mushrooms. Well, you don’t see a big bowl of mushrooms every day, so I asked him…”
“Make this tedium stop, I beg of you,” Larkin said, covering her eyes with the padd that contained the day’s agenda.
“Just turn off your emotion program,” Kamtezen said. “I’m sure it won’t be that bad if you don’t have emotions. Heck, I have emotions and it’s fine with me. Even a little informative.”
“Well I am suffering,” Larkin said. “And I choose not to turn off my emotion program, as I have learned that experiencing a wide range of emotions is healthy.”
“Right. Well, have you ever considered your program may be a little…off? Want me to take a look?”
“Oh, you would like that, would you not? Another chance to get inside me?”
“You are acting really strange, Kristen.”
“Let us continue to watch the plenary session. I prefer to end this line of discussion.”
“Fine, whatever you say,” Kamtezen muttered.
“So I said to Tuvok: Hey, lighten up man!” Hargrove continued, then his eyes widened as he looked at something at the back of the theatre. “Umm…”
“Everyone stay in your seats!” a booming British female voice called out, leading two dozen Cardassian and other rough-hewn looking species down the aisle in the middle of the auditorium, all wielding phaser rifles.
Larkin turned, cocking her head. “This is interesting…” she said softly.
Kamtezen froze. “What’s going on?”
“Say nothing. Do nothing.” Larkin watched as the British woman marched by her, and her followers aimed their weapons in broad, 360-degree strokes, taking in the whole of the startled audience.
“Stop right there!” a voice called from the back of the auditorium. Larkin looked back to see Chief Reeda, the Galadrian constable leading the unit attached to Yngwie Malmstein.
The British woman turned on a heel, then gave a curt nod, and a Yridian and Liseppian in the rear immediately started shooting, quickly felling Reeda and his men.
Other Galadrian security officers quickly emerged from the doorways at either side of the auditorium, but the Cardassian in the lead made short work of them, pumping off quick, well-aimed blasts.
Galadrian security was not that impressive, Larkin noted.
“Hold still old chap, this’ll only take a tic,” the British woman said, gracefully planting a hand on the stage and hopping up to join Hargrove.
“D-don’t kill me. I’m only an extra!” Hargrove moaned putting up his hands.
The leader of the intruders grabbed him by the neck and pulled him toward her, pressing the muzzle of her rifle up under his chin. “No worries. Give us Seven of Nine and you’ll all go free, totally unscathed.”
“Limpet, tricorder,” the woman said, glancing around. “Let’s have a look see where the pretty doll is.”
The Cardassian pulled out a handheld device and waved it around the room. “I’m not locating any active Borg implants, Deidre.”
“Bain…” Larkin said to herself, accessing her records.
“Is that name familiar?” Kamtezen whispered.
“My files include a scaled down version of Memory Alpha. I can call up a list of every name of every Terran born since the dawn of the recorded word. All names are familiar.”
“You don’t have to get snippy with me, Kristen.”
“Silence. I am trying to calculate the exact moment I should intervene.”
“Everyone be calm. Nice and easy,” the woman called Deidre said, holding the barrel of her rifle up under Hargrove’s chin. “So, mister redshirt…”
“Mister Redshirt it is,” Deidre said. “You’re from Voyager?”
He nodded shakily. “Yes, ma’am.”
“And you know Seven of Nine?”
“Well, we exchanged nods a few times. I sat two tables away from her in the mess hall once…”
Deidre nodded. “Fascinating. So where is she, then?”
“You know, funny thing…Seven had a bit of a…she had something come up.”
“Can we turn my mike off?” Hargrove asked weakly, his voice still booming throughout the auditorium, as the confused and scared crowd murmurred about themselves.
“Just tell me.” Deidre pushed her rifle harder against Hargrove’s chin. “Spit it out, man.”
“Well, she heard that attendance at this event would only be 400. And she doesn’t speak at a conference with less than 500 attendees. It’s in her contract rider, actually.”
“Just bloody great!” Deidre mumbled as the crowd erupted into a chorus of boos. She turned her rifle out at the crowd. “And all of you shut up a sec, hear? Give me a moment to think.”
Larkin stood up suddenly, startling Kamtezen. “Deidre Bain, you are under arrest. Please disarm yourself and your compatriots and surrender to Starfleet forces immediately.”
“Starfleet forces? You mean this git?” Deidre asked, pointing her weapon at Hargrove, who shrunk away.
“Negative. I was referring to myself.” She stepped out into the aisle and approached the stage.
“Don’t move, human!” Limpet called out, turning his weapon on her.
“You a one woman army, then?” Deidre asked, squinting under the theater lights trying to make the woman out. “Who are you, anyway?”
“The name is Larkin. Commander Kristen Larkin, U.S.S. Aerostar.”
“Are you crazy!” Kamtezen called from the audience, then ducked behind a row of seats.
Larkin glanced up at Deidre. “Turn your weapon over to me immediately, and tell your forces to stand down.”
Deidre grinned big and looked at her crewmates, who were slowly moving from either side of the auditorium down toward Larkin. “Did’ya hear that? I have forces! I’m so flattered.” She gave a little curtsy. “And all this time I thought it was nothing more than a merry band.”
“Merry band,” one of the Cardassians muttered low, angrily.
“I shall not warn you again,” Larkin said. “If you do not comply with my precise instructions, I will take action against you.”
“Enough of this rubbish. Shoot her,” Deidre muttered, turning back toward Hargrove.
Suddenly Larkin flipped through the air, hopping and landing on the stage in front of Deidre.
“You were warned,” she said evenly.
“Shoot her!” Dedire cried, ducking backward and pulling Hargrove with her.
Several of the privateers fired, but Larkin ducked, leapt, then rolled away from the beams, easily avoiding them. She hopped to her feet directly in front of Deidre’s face and cocked her head quizzically. “Your actions are highly unusual. Do you not see this?”
“My actions are my own business,” Deidre sneered. “Will somebody smegging shoot her or what?”
“Deidre!” one of her people, a Yridian, cried out, staring at his sensor. “She’s an android!”
“Well that explains a lot,” Deidre said, looking at Larkin.
“My android nature is irrelevant,” Larkin said.
“It’s totally relevant,” Deidre corrected, and gave a glance over Larkin’s shoulder at Limpet. He nodded. “You’re not a Borg. But you might be even more valuable.”
“My value is not of…” Larkin said, reaching out to grab Deidre’s arms, when suddenly she felt something pierce the back of her neck and a bolt of energy shot through her positronic systems. Her eyes lolled back and her head twisted this way and that. “Not of…not of…not of… ZRRRRRRRT!”
“YES!” Deidre grinned, clapping merrily as she backed away. “Good shot, Limpet. Right in the nanocordical junction.”
“NO!” the little orange man cried out again from the audience, glancing back from behind a row of chairs. “What did you do to her?”
Meanwhile, Larkin’s positrons were in a blender. Not literally, she noted, but they might as well have been. Her internal sensors confirmed in a few microseconds that a remote projectile had been fired at the back of her neck, inserting nanofilaments into her cordical processor, quickly assessing and subverting her manual control subsistems.
“You….ZZT…will….NTTTRT…NOT…” Larkin said, staggering toward Deidre.
The Privateer leader looked concerned for a moment, her brow creasing. “Limpet, do something…”
Limpet worked his handheld controls. “Hold on. This thing was configured for Borg technology. This android is…something different. The device is taking time logging on.”
“I hate slow log-ons,” Deidre said, clicking her tongue.
Suddenly Larkin stiffened, her arms at her sides. “What…” she began, then cocking her head. “No. This is not possible. I have safeties, protocols…”
“Amazing what you can pick up on the black market for the right amount of latinum,” Limpet said, stepping up behind Larkin. She tried to turn to address him but found herself paralyzed completely.
“Stand down, Deidre Bain. You will only make this worse for yourself. You have already accumulated fifteen different violations of Federation Penal Code.”
“Say ‘penal’ again,” Deidre giggled. “It gives me a little charge.” She grinned, walking up and patting Larkin on the face. “You’re pretty. Who do you belong to?”
“I belong to no one,” Larkin said resolutely. “I am a Federation officer, first officer of the Aerostar.”
“I’ve never heard of it, and frankly I don’t care where you work. But I’d wager that these Aerostar people, and their Starfleet masters, would give a fair price for you.”
“The Federation does not barter with pirates,” Larkin said. She would have sneered disdainfully if she’d been able to control her facial constrictors.
“Privateers,” Deidre said. “Big difference. Which we’ll explain to you in great detail on the trip out to…” She glanced out on the audience. “Whoops. The microphone’s still on. Well, don’t mind where we’re going.”
“You can’t do this! She’s a Starfleet Officer! You’ll be hunted down!” Kamtezen cried out, glancing up again and ducking back behind the chairs.
“Get her down from the stage so we can get out of here,” Deidre told Limpet, who was fussing with the remote.
He plunked a few controls, sending Larkin waddling forward to the edge of the stage. She looked briefly panicked as she pitched forward off the stage and hit the floor below with a thud.
“Larkin! Don’t worry! We’ll get you back!” Kamtezen called out, then once again ducked behind the seats.
“This is humiliating,” Larkin muttered, laying face-first on the ground.
Limpet hopped down next to her, punching controls on the remote device furiously. Eventually, Larkin hopped to her feet, and awkwardly clunked up the aisle toward the theatre exit.
“Thanks for your help, chum,” Deidre said, giving Hargrove a little kiss on the cheek. Then she spun around and hopped off the stage, beckoning her crew to follow her. “We’ve got what we came for. Let’s head out. And grab anything that looks remotely interesting on your way out, people. But be quick about it. Starfleet’s response time is notoriously fast.”
“So…who are we meeting with again?” Ford asked, his brow furrowed with confusion, as he leaned against the transporter console.
“Nigel Hampstershire, Federation Ambassador to Cardassia,” Gellar said, rolling his eyes. “This is only the third time we’ve gone over this.”
“I’m still a little drunk,” Ford admitted.
“It’s synthehol. Just decide to sober out.”
“I never could figure out how to work that, Brian.”
Gellar shook his head. “How is it you’re in command and not me?”
“I offered to wash the Captain’s dog.”
“Okay, so at least I know it was well-earned. That makes me feel better.”
“SIR! We’re approaching the rendezvous!” Bark, the Ferengi transporter chief shouted. “The Cardassian Cruiser Behar is pulling up alongside us!”
Gellar rubbed his left ear with the back of his hand. “Must you really shout everything, Bark?”
“As you know I cannot control the volume of my voice!” Bark shouted.
Ford winced. “I think I deactivated the drunkenness, but I accidentally activated the hangover.”
Gellar ignored Ford and turned to Bark. “Lower our shields and lock onto the Ambassador. Now’s as good a time as any. Ford’s not getting better anytime soon.”
“Thanks,” Ford said, leaning his head on Gellar’s shoulder.
“ENERGIZING TRANSPORTER!” Bark barked.
Gellar quickly pushed Ford off him and wiped a hand over his face as the transporter glowed to life, and a narrow, stooped man with a patch of thinning blonde hair appeared on the pad. He looked around, clutching a briefcase apprehensively. “Ooh…I’ve never been on a Federation Starship before.”
“Not even an ‘Ambassador-class,’ Ambassador?” Ford asked with a weak chuckle.
“No, can’t say that I have, mate,” the man said, extending his hand to Ford. “Nigel Hampstershire, Federation Ambassador to Cardassia. Pleased to meet you.”
“Zachary Ford, currently in command of the Aerostar,” Ford said wearily, pumping Nigel’s hand. “You want to come up to our conference room? We have…coffee there. Actually, that’s all the replicator in the conference room makes.”
“Tea?” Nigel asked, following Ford as Gellar took up the rear.
“Ha!” Ford laughed. “You don’t know our captain.”
“I don’t. But where is he? I need to speak with him right away about a matter of some importance.”
“He’s on his honeymoon,” Ford said. “He’ll be back in a month.”
“That’s…not soon enough for this mission.”
Ford shrugged. “Figures.”
“You’re first officer, then?”
“She’s also off-ship, at a conference. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me, Mister Ambassadorship.” Ford stepped up to the turbolift and pressed its call button. “Sir, are you sweating?”
“A bit,” Nigel confessed.
“It’s like sixty-nine degrees in here,” Ford said, then chuckled briefly.
“It’s…nerves,” Nigel admitted, as the turbolift doors opened and the trio stepped inside. “I’ve got something of a weak constitution.” He grimaced. “My wife would say I’m just being poncey, but it’s a recognized medical condition.”
“Well, if you’ve got bad nerves, you could have picked a better assignment than Cardassia,” Gellar piped in.
“Bridge,” Ford said. “Yeah. It’s not the most hospitable place, especially now, with all the, you know, wreckage.”
“Real sensitive, Ford,” Gellar mumbled.
“I didn’t choose it, you can bet on that, but like a good soldier I’ve embraced my role.” Nigel blanched noticeably. “I should be there right now. I’m missing the Feltonan Festival.”
“We’ll try to get you back there in time once we’re done doing…whatever it is you want us to do,” Ford said as he ducked out of the turbolift and onto the brdge. “Which, by the way, you haven’t told us yet.”
Nigel nodded as he followed Ford to the conference room. “I was just getting to that.”
“Let’s have a chat, Ambassador,” Ford said, walking into the conference room and gesturing to the seats around the table. “I have a date tonight, so if you don’t mind…”
“Time is of the essence,” Nigel said as he took his seat. “We have to work quickly to shoot down my wife, or the unstable peace with Cardassia will be ruined.”
“Sure,” Ford said, as he sat down. “We’ll shoot your….what?”
“Let me explain,” Nigel said.
Ford glanced across the table as Gellar sat down, and looked at all the empty seats around the room. “Wait a sec. We’re gonna need more people in here…”
Conway stirred at the feeling of something being poked into his ribs. He groaned and rolled over, nearly falling out of the bunk in the rear section of the Kissimmee.
“Captain, darling, we’re almost there,” Dr. Lanham announced, stooping and peering into the bunk as she prodded him with the corner of a padd. “Are you going to sleep this whole trip away?”
“I was just taking nap,” Conway said, easing around and slipping out of the bunk, landing abruptly on the deck. “How long was I out?”
Conway stretched and yawned. “It’s been a relaxing trip so far.”
Lanham stared at Conway askance. “I don’t get it. You basically have coffee flowing through your veins. How is it that you need a nap in the middle of the day?”
“The strain of command,” Conway said, shuffling over to the replicator slot. “Which reminds me, I’ve only had three coffees today. Computer! Blend three-fourteen.”
“I hope you’re not going to sleep this whole trip,” Lanham said.
Conway took his coffee out of the slot and stared at his wife over the billowing steam. “Not the whole trip. I do plan on doing some other things that require a bed.”
“Always the romantic,” Lanham sighed and headed into the cockpit.
Conway followed her. “Something on your mind?”
Lanham sat down at the left station and started plucking at controls, checking the autopilot. “Have you given any more thought to our discussion?”
“Yes. I told you I was going to have that bunion removed. I just haven’t had time to schedule it with Doctor Benzra…”
Lanham winced. “No. Not that. The other thing. The thing about us.”
“I told you I was never comfortable with that position, Alexa. I just don’t feel…manly.”
“NOT THAT!” Lanham blurted. “The baby!”
“Baby?” Conway blinked. “Oh. Yes, the baby.”
“You were going to look at adoption agencies.” She handed the padd she’d been carrying to him. “I found a few. The Bajoran one is promising, but we’d probably have to start worshiping the prophets.”
“Oh, not THAT again…don’t even get me started,” Conway said, as he paged through the padd. “Hmm. You put a lot of thought to this.”
“What did you come up with?”
He glanced at her. “I’m, uh, I’m still winnowing.”
“Tell me about one or two. Don’t be shy.”
“Look,” Conway said, blowing out an exasperated breath. “I haven’t had time to devote to scouring the cosmos for adoption agencies. Why don’t we just beat one of our crewmen over the head until he becomes a vegetable, then adopt him like Holly Wilcox did.”
“Nevermind,” Conway said.
Lanham grabbed her padd back. “Look, David. Are you going to be invested in this thing? I mean, since you shot yourself in the testicles with a phaser rifle, rendering yourself impotent…”
Conway doubled over, pounding the console in front of him with remembered pain. “What did I say about NEVER talking about that again, Alexa!”
“We have to find another solution. So either we adopt a child, or we start talking about eugenics.”
“Umm….” Conway looked around the runabout. “She was only kidding, people. Whoever’s out there listening, she was only kidding!”
“I could get another crewmember to impregnate me,” Lanham said. “By the looks he’s given me, I’d say Lieutenant Gellar would be willing.”
Conway glared at her. “Real mature, Alexa. You leave my officers alone.”
“Then let’s start talking about adoption.” She locked eyes with Conway. “Unless you’d rather not do this…”
“No,” Conway said, reaching out and taking Lanham’s hand. “Of course I want to do this. I told you I did. I’ve just got…trepidation.”
“Trepidation is normal.”
“We just have to take these things one at a time.”
“I need to know that you want a child, David. This isn’t something we can do halfway.”
But I do everything else halfway, Conway thought idly.
Lanham looked at him. “What are you thinking, David?”
“How much I love you,” Conway said, turning back to face the stars in the viewport.
A few hours later, the Kissimmee had taken up orbit around Rubicon Three, and Conway and Lanham, along with all their luggage, had beamed down to one of the many Hospitality Centers that dotted the southwestern coast.
“They’ve made some upgrades since the Enterprise visit,” Lanham said, taking in the reception hall outside the transporter room.
“Picard was here?” Conway growled. That nancy-boy Frenchman.
“Yeah, like seventeen years ago,” Lanham said. “That was the last time a Federation ship visited Rubicon.”
“Then how can they call themselves the second most pleasurable planet in the quadrant?” Conway asked as female attendants clad only in a few swaths of white cloth spirited away his and Lanham’s bags, down a long-stretching hallway.
“Because there are hundreds of other spacefaring species that don’t belong to the Federation, silly. You think we’re the standard-bearer for the whole quadrant?”
“Yes,” Conway said flatly. “I need a coffee. I’m getting the shakes.”
“Coffee GIVES you the shakes,” Lanham said. “Will I ever be able to convince you of that?”
“No,” Conway said, still looking around. “I wonder who they’re sending to receive us. Some dignitary, no doubt.”
“I’m not sure the Rubiconians really care that much about Federation citizens, David. Nor should they. We’re just one of the crowd. We’re here to blend!”
“Starfleeters!” a booming voice echoed as a slim, athletic man, middle-aged but healthy-looking, with a mane of swirling auburn hair, came jogging up the hall to meet Conway and Lanham. “We’re so glad to have you here!”
“Put on some pants, man!” Conway said, gaping at the Rubiconian’s tiny loincloth.
“We’re not ashamed of our bodies here, friend Conway,” the man said, bowing. “And I think you’ll find, once you’ve been here a while, you’ll feel that way too.”
“Not very damn likely,” Conway said, glancing around. “Where’s our room?”
“Shovanna is here to show you the way. Meanwhile, I am your concierge. You can call on me for any assistance you may need while you’re here. You may call me Marton.”
“Marton,” Conway said. “You have any coffee around here?”
“I’m…sorry…” Marton said, looking from Conway to Lanham. “Coff…ee?”
Conway turned around. “See ya!”
Lanham grabbed his arm and spun him back around. “Hold on one second. You have replicators, right, Marton?”
“The best in the galaxy!”
“And they’re programmed with earth delicacies?”
“There you go.” She patted Conway on the back. “You’ll get your fix, sweetie. Just be patient.”
One of the two women that flanked the wedded couple, apparently “Shovanna,” gestured toward the nearby lift, as the other woman handed the rest of the luggage to her and walked off.. “This way, friends Conway and Lanham. We have a spectacular room ready for you.”
Marton followed them into the lift as Shovanna punched a control, sending it surging upward. She shouldered four pieces of luggage as if it were weightless, something Conway found amazing. Not only did she have a beautiful body, she was strong!
“Your first time on Rubicon?” Marton asked conversationally.
“Well, since we’re the only Starfleet officers who’ve come here since the Enterprise visited seventeen years ago, I guess that answer would be yes,” Conway said.
“Be nice,” Lanham mouthed, then grinned at Marton. “What do you recommend for two honeymooners?”
“The falls of Bengratha are beautiful this time of year. I’d also suggest that you try the Meektap at Broffa’s. It’s splendid!”
“That sounds…great…” Lanham trailed off as the lift stopped, and Conway led the way out.
“But your room is this way, sir!” Shovanna said sweetly.
“Whatever,” Conway said, turning to follow the Rubiconian girl.
“Don’t hesitate to call if you need anything,” Marton said, pressing a button to command the lift back down to the first floor. “By the way, make sure not to break any of our laws or you’ll be sorry!” he said quickly as the doors closed.
“What was that?” Conway asked, as Shovanna showed he and Lanham to their room.
“I’m sure it was nothing,” Lanham said.
“If you need anything,” Shovanna began. “Just…”
“Yes, just ask for you, we get it,” Conway said, prompting a glare from Lanham. He glanced around the spacious, palacial room with a picture-window view of waterfalls, lush gardens, and expansive forests below. “So, where’s the holo-vision? They’re reshowing the 2085 Taladega race on NASCAR Classic.”
“NAS…CAR?” Shovanna said blankly.
“No,” Conway said, cupping his hands over his face. “No, no, no, no, no…”
“What is holovision?” Shovanna asked as Lanham ushered her to the door.
“Don’t worry about it. The room’s lovely. Thank you very much. We’ll call if we need anything. Thanks!” Lanham pushed Shovanna out the door and closed it, turning the lock. She turned to Conway. “Were you planning on watching holovision during our honeymoon?”
“Well, we have three weeks so…yeah, some of the time!”
“I think you’ll survive.”
Conway collapsed onto the bed. “I wish Bucky was here.”
Lanham sat down next to him. “Your wife or your dog. Choose now.”
Conway stroked his chin. “Hmmm…”
Lanham punched him in the arm. “Very funny. Now let’s go find a swimming pool.”
“You want to go swimming?” Conway asked, watching Lanham duck into the bathroom. “I’ll go ahead and contact the Aerostar, check in and see how they’re doing…”
“No you won’t!” Lanham called from the bathroom. “I called ahead and had them cut our outgoing communications. The Aerostar can get along without you for a couple of weeks.”
Conway grimaced, rolling over on the bed. “Are you going to let me do anything fun?”
“There are hiking trails. Museums. Parks, waterfalls, surfing, orbital skydiving, parasailing, creative bench-pressing contests…”
Conway put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. “Terrific,” he moaned, then lowered his voice. “I bet they’re having all kinds of fun on the Aerostar and I’m stuck here.”
“…so as I was saying, Deidre and I met when I was very young. We were researchers together at Phobos station,” Nigel Hampstershire said, leaning forward against the conference table as he looked around at the blank stares of Ford, Gellar, Saral, and Counselor Telvin..
“This is fascinating,” Ford said. “But we can move the story along?”
“Of course,” Nigel said, pulling at his collar a little. “Deidre and I immediately clicked. She called me ‘grounded’ and ‘sane,’ and I enjoyed her tempestuous nature.”
“Anybody know what ‘tempestuous’ means?” Ford asked around the table.
“I will tell you later,” Saral said softly. “Go on, Ambassador.”
“We complemented each other nicely, and in time we were married. Eventually, my interests moved from research to diplomacy, after settling a number of worker disputes at the Phobos Mining Colony. It was then that I…DEAR GOD! BY ALL THE QUEEN’S MAJESTY WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?”
Ford turned, glancing back at the door, where Doctor Benzra had just ducked in.
“Someone needsssssssssssssssssssss a doctor?” the massive Flarn hissed.
Nigel backed against the wall, his hands shaking. “Commander, where did that monster come from?”
“Ssssssssssickbay,” Benzra said idly, pushing a chair away from the table and squatting there. They’d never managed to design a chair that would fit her massive undercarraige, and beside her triple redundant knees had no problem with prolonged squatting. “I was jussssssst in the middle of an experiment to determine human resssssssistance to prolonged grilling.”
“That’s fantastic,” Ford said with a weak grin, then turned to Nigel. “Don’t worry, Ambassador. She’s on our side. Benzra is our chief medical officer.”
“Although on a Flarn ssssssship, I’d likely be the head chef.”
Nigel’s eyes bugged. “Flarn…aren’t they a race from the Delta Quadrant?”
“Yeah, Benzra’s the only one here,” Ford said, reaching over and patting Benzra’s shiny exoskeleton. “She’s one of a kind, right Benzra?”
“To my knowledge my race is currently extincting itssssssself on the other sssssside of the galaxy.”
“Fabulous,” Ford said, and turned to Nigel. “Go on, sir.”
Nigel pulled back up to the table, stammering. “I…I…”
“It’s okay, Nigel,” Counselor Telvin said from beside Nigel, gently touching his arm. “I was scared of her at first. But I got over my fears. You will too. Tell us what’s troubling you, and we’ll try to help.”
Gellar leaned over toward Ford. “Telvin’s here?”
“He got back from Tantalus last month.”
Gellar nodded. “He was a visiting physician there, right…not a…patient?”
“Let’s not talk about it. He’s much better now, at any rate.” Ford smiled and turned back to Nigel. “Continue, Ambassador.”
Nigel nodded, casting another glance at Benzra, then quickly looking away as her compound eyes oscillated and she licked her dripping jaws. “A-as I was saying, Deidre and I were married and I moved into the diplomatic corps. After some nasty business with the Deltans involving a massive orgy, it was determined that my services would be best utilized elsewhere.”
“You were transferred as punishment for screwing up, huh spanky?” Gellar said. Ford glared at him. “I mean, uh, Ambassador Spanky.”
Nigel narrowed his eyes at Gellar. “Starfleet’s use of its diplomatic resources is not under my purview. I go where I’m sent.”
“And you went to Cardassia,” Ford said, yawning. “Man this is taking a long time.”
“Yes. Cardassia.” Nigel’s expression darkened and he folded his hands in front of him. “That was a year and a half ago. I did as I was told, and tried to strengthen the bonds between the Federation and Cardassia, while we focused on bringing aid to their underserved populations and areas of critical need. Unfortunately, Deidre and I had some disagreements at the supper table as to how to go about this.”
“You two didn’t see eye to eye?” Ford asked.
“Quite the opposite. She felt the Federation was acting as an occupying force, and that the real aid wasn’t getting to the places of the most need.”
“Was it?” Gellar asked.
“That’s not my place to say. I simply relay the messages of the Federation Council.”
“So she left you,” Ford said. “And I can’t imagine why.”
Nigel glared at Ford. “I do my best to help Cardassia, using approved diplomatic channels.” He sighed. “Deidre, firebrand that she’s always been, didn’t feel like that was enough. She wanted to take matters into her own hands. Much like when I met her on Phobos, where she was doing research to prove that Phoban miners were exposed to high levels of radiation, and then orchestrated a shut-down of the mining complex until the Federation came in and rebuilt the facility.”
“And does the Federation believe she’s once again taking matters into her own hands?” Gellar asked.
Nigel nodded reluctantly. “There would be…significant evidence…to support that.”
“Where is Deidre now?” asked Ford.
“That’s the problem,” Nigel said. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know where your own wife is?” Saral asked.
“She left me a little over six months ago. One morning I awoke and she was gone. No note, nothing.”
“Sounds like a matter for the Cardassian authorities,” Ford said.
“I’ve got a genetically-bred human to look after,” Benzra said, and began to stand, her knees popping as she rose.
Everyone stared at her.
“What? What’ssssss the problem?”
“The Cardassian authorities tried to find her,” Nigel said. “They couldn’t. Nobody could find Deidre until about a week ago, when Cardassian Privateers attacked Starbase 228.”
“Don’t tell me she was with them,” Ford said.
“She was leading them,” Nigel said, drawing shocked expressions from around the table. He pushed a padd across the table toward Ford. “According to the starbase commander’s report.”
Ford read the report, then grinned as he scrolled to a picture of Deidre. “Wow, sir. Your wife is smoking hot.” He lifted the padd and showed the group at the table. “Look!”
“Mister Ford…” Nigel began, working his jaw back and forth.
“Now I’m starting to see why Starfleet was called into this,” Gellar said, looking to Ford. “Something tells me that a human leading a group of Cardassian Privateers would be a little concerning to them.”
“Not to mention the Cardassians,” Saral said.
“No kidding,” Ford said. “So where is she now?”
Nigel shrugged. “That’s where you come in. I’ve been told Starfleet would send their best, most capable ship, to track down Deidre and her group and neutralize them.”
Gellar suppressed a chuckle, as Nigel continued.
“…which won’t be easy. My wife, her family…has a reputation for being crafty and resilient during wartime. Surely you’ve heard of the Bains.”
“Nope, can’t say we have,” Ford said, taking a breath. “Anyway, we’ll see what we can do. Any suggestions, people?”
“I have a griddle…” Benzra began, but stopped when Ford held up a silencing hand.
“Not what I was thinking,” Ford said. He glanced at Gellar. “Brian, you and Saral study the telemetry from Starbase 228. See if you can find a way to track her ship, find a likely search area. Then work with sciences, whoever’s filling in for Lanham, to lay out a search grid.”
Gellar nodded, leaning over. “Good work, Zack. You almost sound like you know what you’re talking about.”
“Shut up,” Ford said, and stood. “All right, people, let’s…”
The comm system suddenly bleeped. “Garrity to Ford.”
Ford tapped his badge. “Go ahead.”
“Sir, we just picked up a distress call from Galadriel Six.”
Ford and Gellar exchanged glances. “Isn’t that where…” Ford began, but Garrity cut him off.
“It appears the Positronics Conference was raided by Cardassian Privateers, sir. Commander Larkin was taken hostage, and the Privateers escaped with a cargo hold full of positronic technology. Some mention was made of a crazy British woman…”
Ford nodded. “Well, Nigel, sounds like we’ve found your wife. Garrity, lay in a course for Galadriel Six and engage at maximum warp. Ambassador, I hope you don’t mind tagging along.”
“I was hoping I could do so,” Nigel said, giving Ford a brief bow. “Although I’d appreciate it if you didn’t get in too many violent firefights. You know, because of my nerves.”
“Yeah, like that’s a possibility,” Gellar said, as the group filed out of the conference room.
Larkin’s eyes blinked open, and her thermal sensors immediately reported that, wherever she was, the climate was cold.
Other than that, she could see nothing but brown.
“Take that thing off her,” a voice that belonged to Deidre Bain said from nearby.
“She shouldn’t be able to report on our location.”
“Well, as long as you don’t give her a communicator, we shouldn’t have to worry about that.”
The brown was lifted, a blanket of some kind, and Larkin saw that she was in some kind of ice cave. Deidre and the other privateers were huddled around a heating element for warmth.
“Where are we?” Larkin asked, irked that she was unable to move her head around to take in more of her surroundings.
“Hiding out in a safe place,” Deidre said, walking up to Larkin, who surmised she was perched on a make-shift ice bench. “Do you like the surroundings?”
“I do, but that is beside the point.”
“I hate the bloody cold, myself,” Deidre said, sitting down beside Larkin. “But this locale had the virtue of being nearby. And it wasn’t hard to gather up the planet’s current residents and lock them into cold storage.”
Larkin then beamed as a penguin waddled by.
Deidre tsked. “Well, almost all of them.”
“That was a penguin.”
“Your technology is advanced,” Deidre said. “Can you identify other common Earth waterfowl?”
“If my internal chronomter is intact, we have only been traveling for approximately six hours. So we must be in a nearby system. This is Frigidia Two.”
“You’re familiar with it?”
“I was planning to visit here for the Penguins on Ice exhibit.”
“Small galaxy,” Dedire said. “It’s a good hideout, because the fremaldum ore in the ice and rock formations shield from routine sensor scans.”
“You are intelligent,” Larkin said. “The privateers are lucky to have you.”
“I lead them well,” Deidre said. “Go on, Commander. Compliments will get you everywhere, love.”
“I was about to add that it is a shame your intelligence is put to such misguided use.”
“That’s your opinion,” Deidre said. “I’m helping Cardassians who can’t help themselves. What could be a better use of my skills?”
“Diplomacy, politics, Starfleet service…”
Deidre yawned. “I couldn’t possibly stomach all the training one must go through for that. I need to be out there, in space…”
“Or in here, in a cold cave?” Larkin asked. Nearby, two Cardassians and a Kovarian chortled at that.
“You’ve got a smart mouth on you for an automaton.”
“I am a fully sentient android. My personality is as real as yours. I am no automaton.”
Deidre bowed regally. “My apologies, your robotness. I’m so sorry.”
“Apology accepted. Now, release me so I can arrest you.”
“Fraid that’s not the plan, darling. First we have to hide out until the Starfleet search party passes over. Then we run for the Badlands.”
A Cardassian stepped up behind Deidre, his jaw vibrating angrily. “Must you tell her our entire plan, Deidre?”
“Oh, Besket. She’s more conversant than you or Limpet,” Deidre said. “Besides, she’s immobilized. If the technology you and Limpet developed works, then she shouldn’t pose any problems for us, eh?”
“The technology works,” Besket said. “Of that you can be sure. But you’re taking unnecessary risks. You’re letting your human vanity get the best of you.”
“Like a good human is known to do,” Deidre said. “It’s what gives us our charm. Isn’t that right, Larkin?”
“I would not know about that,” Larkin said. “However, based on the parameters laid out by the Seldonis Convention, I hearby request to speak with a neutral representative.”
“Any of you guys hear of the Seldonis convention?” Deidre called over her shoulder. She got a chorus of grunts in respond. She drew up a knee and leaned on it, tugging at the edges of her knee-high leather boot. “Seems this isn’t that kind of crowd, Larky. Sorry about that. But these blokes would rather collect their money and go home. What does the Seldonis Convention say about that?”
“I would guess the conventioneers would not approve.”
“Pity. And here I thought all ‘eers’ thought alike. Privateers and otherwise.”
“Mutineers, too,” Besket sneered as he sat down nearby.
“Oh, shut up you big lug,” Deidre grinned. She turned back to Larkin. “They may not act like it, but my merry band loves me.”
“I fail to see the attraction.”
“That’s because you’re an android. If you had feelings, you’d see…”
“I am capable of the full range of humanoid emotions.”
Deidre turned, cocking her head at Larkin. “You’re kidding! What they can do with computers these days, I tell you…”
Larkin neglected to add that, at present, she was unable to deactivate her emotions. Not a problem, necessarily, except for the fact that were she required to take drastic actions, she couldn’t rely on a cold, emotionless response. Which would probably come in handy about now. Still, she vowed not to let panic get the better of her. She was a Starfleet officer, and she would act like it. Just because she was an android, and had some special abilities most humans did not, didn’t mean she had to…
It took three more nanoseconds for Larkin to formulate her plan. Hopefully, the neural restrictor didn’t lock out all her systems…
Ford paced in the front of the Aerostar bridge as the ship raced toward Galadriel. He glanced back from time to time at Nigel, who sat fidgeting in the side chair in the command area, normally occupied by Larkin. Telvin sat in the chair on the other side of the command chair, while Benzra had returned to Sickbay “to continue her experiments.” That would have to be a discussion for another time.
“Got something,” Gellar suddenly said, as he and Saral bent over the tactical console.
“What?” Ford asked, turning.
“The Bird of Prey that attacked Starbase 228 is a Natoth-Class. A prototype discontinued because of failed experiments with phase-cloaking. Just like the Romulans, the Klingons eventually gave up on that possibility, in favor of more conventional cloaking devices.”
“We’re sure the phase-cloak doesn’t work?”
“Starfleet engineers would stake their reputations on it,” Gellar said.
“How does that help us?”
“The cloak on a Natoth-Class bird, phase or otherwise, puts off a unique neutrino emission. Whenever the cloak is raised or lowered, the neutrino burst fires. If it’s operational, that is.”
“Let’s hope it is,” Ford said, as Saral made her way down to ops, relieving Yeoman Skyler. He glanced back at sciences, where Lt. Vicky Dawson was filling in. “Dawson, have we got a search pattern yet?”
Dawson squinted at her readouts, leaning on the science console. “We’ve plotted a grid between Starbase 228 and Galadriel. It’s a big grid, though. It would help if we had another ship.”
“The Enterprise is only three sectors away,” Gellar piped up.
“Forget that,” Ford said. “Conway would never forgive me if I called in the Enterprise for assistance. He can’t stand Picard.”
“Maybe you should recall Captain Conway, since your First Officer would appear to be in Privateer hands,” Nigel said.
“Nah. It’s his honeymoon. Leave the guy in peace,” Ford said. “Besides, I’ve got this matter well in hand.” Plus, Dr. Lanham ordered no incoming comm signals, Ford thought, deciding not to throw that little tidbit into the mix.
“Zack! I’m getting something on the cadion-pulse band. It’s a message from Larkin!”
“Huh?” Ford asked, nearly tripping over himself to get back to the tactical console. “Lemme see, lemme see!”
Nigel covered his face as Ford looked over the readouts. “Dawson, triangulate this signal. Give me a planet, a system, a parsec, something to locate it!”
“I’m on it, Commander.”
“It’s just a brief six-word alphanumeric message,” Gellar said, reading the message as it trailed across his screen. “The pirate is with the penguins.”
“Her and her damn penguins,” Ford said. “Can someone decode that for me?”
“I don’t think it’s encoded,” Dawson said. “The pulse is coming from Frigidia Two. There was supposed to be a penguin exhibition there earlier today.”
“Alter course for Frigidia,” Ford said. “Increase speed to…”
“We’re already at maximum warp,” Garrity said.
“Maximum-maximum warp, whatever comes after that,” Ford said. “Let’s…”
“What about Kamtezen, sizzle-chest?” Gellar asked. “He’s still stuck on Galadriel.”
Ford grimaced. “Figures. Well, we can’t exactly be in two places at once.”
Gellar stared at him. “Think, Zack.”
“What? It’s not like the ship can just split…in…”
“He’s getting it,” Gellar said. “Just another minute…”
A grin spread across Ford’s face. “Ooh. I’ve always wanted to do this.”
“You split up the ship the last time you were in command,” Gellar corrected.
“Oh. Right. Well, I’ve always wanted to do it again. Gellar, you’re in command of the saucer section. I’ll take the twin-drive section to Frigidia to grab Larkin. You take the saucer to Galadriel and get Kamtezen.”
“What if you run into resistance from the Privateers?” Gellar asked, as Ford pointed to Dawson and Saral.
“You two are with me. You too, Nigel.” Ford shrugged as he walked toward the turbolift. “How much of a problem can one pissy British woman be?”
“You’ll see,” Nigel said, reluctantly following Ford and the others into the turbolift, as Skyler sat down at ops, and another crewman took the science station.
Gellar headed toward the center seat. “Yeah, this’ll go well.”
“I have all the faith in the world in you, if that helps at all,” Telvin said, putting his hand on Gellar’s.
Gellar glanced at him. “Yeah. Thanks. Um…could you take your hand off mine now?”
Captain’s Personal Log,
Stardate 57905.5. After much discussion and deliberation with my science officer, and various staff on the planet Rubicon Three, I have made the following command decision:
Alexa Lanham ducked as Conway unceremoniously plunged into the pool sending a wall of water crashing over her head, and the heads of several other vacationers from a variety of non-aligned worlds.
Lanham blinked the water out of her eyes as Conway surfaced in front of her, grinning. “So what was that? An Eight, or a Ten? Did you take off points for the splash? Because that was kind of intentional.”
“Honestly, David, I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention.”
“Why not? Didn’t you see me mounting the diving board?”
“I’ve just been floating here, thinking.”
“Oh, okay,” Conway said, and started to paddle back to the stairs out of the huge, mobius-shaped pool that serviced all of the guests of Hospitality Center Twenty-Nine.
“David,” Lanham called after him. “Don’t you want to know what I was thinking about?”
“No,” Conway said honestly. “I was going to try another kind of dive.”
Lanham stared at him long and hard, prompting him to guiltily paddle back to her.
“You wanted me to ask you what you were thinking about.”
“Then why didn’t you just ask?”
“Because I shouldn’t have to, David, and you know it. We’re on this honeymoon together. Let’s start acting like it.”
“I thought I was,” Conway said thoughtfully. “I was diving, and you were judging my dives.”
“Not so much,” Lanham said, shaking her head. “I want to talk some more, about what we were talking about in the Runabout.”
“NO!” Lanham snapped, exasperated, slapping water in Conway’s face. She paddled closer to him, lowering her voice. “Children. I want us to adopt.”
“Is this really the best time for this?” Conway asked. “I mean, with all the sunshine, and the diving board, and the splashy water?”
Lanham paddled over to a ladder and climbed out of the pool. “You’re right. Stay, have fun in the pool. I’m going to take a walk.”
“Okay. Have fun!” Conway waved after her. He floated there, treading water, for a few moments, as a Ferengi child drifted by him, floating on an inflatable raft.
“The female wants you to follow her, silly hew-mon!” the child giggled.
Conway glared at him. “Yeah. Okay. Thanks, kid.”
“Wait up!” Conway called, jogging down the winding, grassy path that lead away from the pool and out to the Hospitality Center Park and Goolf Course. Goolf was a cheap, alien version of Golf that was identical to golf in every way, except that the balls had hovering capability, and the putters were half the length, so you had to squat to make your shots. Damn annoying, at least as far as Conway was concerned.
“You don’t want to talk about it right now,” Lanham said, not looking back at Conway. “That’s okay. We can discuss it later. Or not at all. Whatever.”
Breathless, Conway finally caught up to her, leaning forward on his knees to catch his breath. “I didn’t realize this was so important to you. We can talk about it now.”
“Didn’t realize?” Lanham asked, turning. “Didn’t realize it was so important! David, you knew since we got together the first time that I eventually wanted to have a family. When you proposed to me, you even mentioned that we’d adopt.”
“Yeah,” Conway admitted. “I guess I might’ve.”
“So what happened? Here we are, a year later, and you’re not even serious about finding an adoption agencies.”
Conway shrugged. “It’s a big galaxy. There are a lot of options.”
“Is it that, or is it that you really don’t want to have kids?”
Conway stared at her. “Of course I do. I mean, that was the plan, right?”
“It was the plan, but I understand plans change.” Lanham looked long and hard at Conway. “So what is it that you want?”
“I…hey, look, a game of Goolf!” Conway said, and darted across the grass to a group of aliens that were teeing up at a nearby Goolf hole.
“Don’t change the subject!” Lanham shouted, jogging after Conway.
Conway was running so fast away from Lanham he didn’t even see the splendid, multi-colored flower bed that lie just in front of him, between him and the puuting green (similar, in most every respect, to a putting green).
“Wait, Dave, stop!” Lanham cried out, and grabbed Conway’s arm just before he launched into the middle of the flower bed.
Conway glanced down. “Whoa. That was close.”
“I’ve heard they’re a little loopy about their laws around here,” Lanham said, patting Conway on the shoulder. “You don’t want to get in trouble with the locals.”
“Why aren’t we on Risa again?”
“Oh,” Lanham muttered. “It’s so commercial.”
Conway sighed. “I’m sorry I ran away from you like that.”
“It was childish. But I have come to expect that from you.”
“Thanks, I think.” He took her hands. “But I owe it to you to have this conversation. Let’s talk.”
“Great idea. And then we can get on with our vacation.”
“Sounds like a plan!” Conway said, and turned around. Unfortunately, he stepped right on a gardening hoe, which flipped up and slammed him in the face. He cried out, then fell backward, arms pinwheeling.
“David, watch out!” Lanham cried, reaching out to take his hand. She grabbed it just in time.
Just in time for him to pull her backwards with him.
The pair fell backward, landing with a thud, smashing a good portion of the flower bed.
“Oops,” Conway said. “They ought to watch where they keep their hoes.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” Lanham said, leaning up on her elbows as two bronzed, muscular blond men dressed in nothing more than white panties and a handtowel jogged up.
“No, we’re okay,” Conway said, gesturing them away and helping Lanham to her feet. “No need for alarm. I’m sure I’ve got a big red welt on my face. Somebody should put that hoe in a safe place…”
“Sir, Ma’am, you’ll need to come with us,” the lead blond said. “We’re the Guardians.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it!” Conway said. “I don’t need to report this to customer service. Just an ice pack will be fine. Y’all will still get a nice tip when all this is over. Or am I supposed to tip you guys now?” He glanced at Lanham. “How much do you tip a guardian?”
One of the men clamped his hand down on Conway’s wrist and dragged him out of the flowerbed. “Please, sir. Come with us. Do not struggle.”
“Don’t struggle against what?” Lanham asked as the other man pulled her along.
“You’ve violated Rubicon law,” the one who’d spoken said. “You must be punished appropriately.”
“We just smashed some flowers,” Conway said. “You want to be reimbursed? Is that it? I have a little latinum. Let’s cut a deal.”
“A sentence must be exacted,” the Guardian said.
“Wait a minute,” Lanham said. “I’m remembering something else I heard about Rubicon Three. Something that wasn’t in the brochures. It was in Starfleet’s historical database. Captain Picard’s trip here…”
“Oh, not him again.” Conway rolled his eyes.
Suddenly one of the blond men reached into a holster at his thigh and withdrew a syringe. “This will not hurt a bit…” he said, and approached Conway.
“What’s that?” Conway asked, looking to Lanham.
“Oh, my God!” Lanham cried. “They’re going to kill us!”
“This is my vacation! I mean honeymoon!” Conway wailed, dropping to his knees. “Don’t kill me! I have so much to do! I’ve only been a captain for three years! I have to make admiral before I die!”
And, without further warning, the Guardian jabbed the needle in Conway’s arm. Then, quickly, he did the same to Lanham.
“Have you found anything of value?” Deidre Bain asked as Besket and Marrazz ducked into the cave, lugging a cargo crate.
“Very little, I’m afraid. This was the second day of a two-day conference. You know, they save the boring crap for the second day.”
“I’m acutely aware,” Deidre said. “What have you got there?”
“A penguin costume,” Marrazz hissed, and Larkin’s eyes lit up at that.
“Is it…plush?” she asked, struggling to hide her penguin-centered emotions.
Marrazz nodded. “Yes, with a realistic beak and flippers.”
“You seem excited,” Deidre asked. “Let me guess, you’ve always wanted to be a penguin.”
“Yes,” Larkin said shamefully, wishing she could get her emotion program in check.
“Really?” Deidre asked. “That’s odd.”
“Your knee-high leather boots give you the appearance of an Orion street-walker, and yet I do not cast aspersions on your tastes,” Larkin snapped.
“I like the sass on you,” Deidre said. “Bring the costume along, it might prove amusing,” Deidre said. “And go to the amphitheatre and start patting down our…guests from the ice show. Take anything they have that’s of value. We can pawn it off in the Yridian marketplace.”
As Besket and Marrazz headed back out of the cave, Limpet approached Larkin, peering at his handheld sensor. “Deidre, I think something’s wrong.”
“What would that be?” she asked, looking from Larkin to Limpet.
“There’s a signal. A faint cadion pulse coming from the android.”
Deidre turned on Larkin. “IS there? Shut it off, right bleedin’ now!”
“It’ll take time. I have to shut off the android entirely before I can disconnect the pulse generator.”
Larkin looked fearfully from Deidre to Limpet. “You might as well give up,” she said, trying to show her resolve. “Starfleet will be here quite soon to rescue me.”
“Which is why we’re leaving now,” Deidre said. She clapped a hand on her wrist and lifted it to her mouth. “Bain to Duff. Prepare the Voracious for immediate take-off. Instruct the landing party to reassemble in the hangar deck in ten minutes. Grab what you can, leave the hostages where they are, and leave!”
“Your ship expends gaseous matter like any other vessel. Even if you depart before Starfleet arrives, they will be able to track you.”
“I’m betting they won’t be. You aren’t familiar with the Voracious,” Dedire said, and looked to Limpet. “Well? Shut her down!”
Limpet studied his scans. “Just looking for her off-switch. It’s not in the lower back, like the Soong-types.” He grinned as he read the sensor readouts. “The armpit. Ingenius!” He reached under Larkin’s arm and pressed the toggle, prompting her to shut off suddenly.
“No, you cannot…” she said, and then went silent as her eyes closed and her head drooped.
“Fan-bloody-tastic!” Deidre said. “Let’s move out, people!”
“Shouldn’t we take one or two of the hostages from the ice show?” Limpet asked.
“You and Pultz grab Larkin. She’s the only hostage we need. She’s bound to be very valuable to someone out there.”
Lt. Commander Ford leaned forward in the command chair as the twin-drive section of the Aerostar-A winged into the Frigidia system.
The twin-drive, the lower half of the Prometheus-class vessel, was called such because it was capable of operating as a single ship, or breaking apart into yet another pair of ships. When the Aerostar initiated “multi-vector assault mode,” a ludicrous-sounding but effective battle strategy, the ship broke into those two pieces, plus the saucer section. But for Ford’s purposes at the moment, two sections were more than enough to get the job done, and as such the twin-drive remained a single ship.
The battle-bridge wasn’t as roomy, by far, as the main bridge on the saucer. It was functional. A joined forward station comprising conn and ops, a tactical console directly behind Ford, and a small science console to Ford’s right, and one for engineering on his left. The engineering station was unmanned at the moment, while Lt. Dawson took sciences, Saral took tactical (her former occupation) and Yeoman Skyler took the helm.
Nigel Hampstershire leaned awkwardly against the vacant ops console, looking back at Ford. “Are you concerned you might be taking us into battle?”
“Not really concerned,” Ford said. “I have a way of coming up with creative solutions at the last minute, during intense combat situations.”
Nigel nodded. “Ahh. That’s…comforting.”
“He is referring to an incident during which he slapped his hand down on a random series of controls and by pure luck avoided disaster, while helmsman of the U.S.S. Explorer,” Saral stated matter-of-factly from tactical.
“I like it better the way I say it,” Ford said, shifting in the command chair. “Any response from the authorities on Frigidia?”
“As yet, no response from Frigidia,” Saral said.
“That’s odd,” Ford said, rubbing his chin.
“Not if my wife attacked the planet. She would have disabled their communications capability,” Nigel said. “She may still be there.”
“Scan the system on approach,” Ford said. “See if you can find any trace of Deidre’s ship.”
“Unlikely,” Saral said. “The Natoth-class is notoriously hard to track, given its phase-cloaking properties.”
Dawson sat back in her chair at the science console. “We have to hope at some point she raises or lowers her cloak. Then we’ll be able to lock onto the neutrino surge.”
“Once that happens, Saral, you need to be quick. We have to disable her weapons and engines before she can begin evasive maneuvers.”
Saral nodded. “That is standard practice during engagements with cloaked vessels. Have you been studying up?”
Ford shrugged. “I read some stuff on the way here.”
“We’ve arrived at Frigidia, sir,” Yeoman Skyler said from the helm. “Want me to put her into orbit?”
“Standard orbit with a twist,” Ford said. “It’s, uh…something I do where I bank at a thirty-degree angle and…” He looked around the bridge at the blank faces that stared back at him. “Nevermind. Standard orbit is fine.” He looked back at Dawson. “Anything on sensors?”
“Telemetry coming in now,” Saral said. “There appear to be one hundred and fifty assorted life-signs. No casualties that I can detect.”
“She is not down there,” Saral said. “I’m scanning space in all vectors leading away from the planet. I should be able to locate Larkin by her cadion pulse, or detect some of the emissions from the Klingon Bird of Prey.”
“Meanwhile, I’m going down there. I’ve got some questions for the people of Frigidia.”
“Like where did Deidre go?” Nigel asked, following Ford back to the turbolift door.
“Like why anyone would possibly want to go to an ice show,” Ford said, and pointed at Saral. “Lieutenant, you’re with me. Dawson, you have the bridge.”
“It’s a bad day when the chain of command comes all the way down to me,” Dawson muttered as she stepped out from behind sciences and sat down in the command chair.
Meanwhile, the Aerostar’s saucer section was likewise arriving at its destination.
Gellar shifted in the command chair. “Sensors. Can you detect Larkin and Kamtezen’s runabout?”
Lt. Puckett nodded, looking up from tactical. “Yes, sir. I’ve got the Penobscot, crashed on the surface of Galadriel. Basically intact, but all engines, weapons, and life support are disabled.”
“Gellar to engine room,” the lieutenant said, slapping his com badge. “I need a crash team to report to Transporter Room Two on the double.” He turned to the science console. “Ensign Miles, what about the conference center?”
Ensign Anson Miles looked up from his science readouts. “Yngwie Malmstein has gone silent, sir. If anyone’s down there, they’re unable to communicate.”
Gellar stood. “All right, then, let’s check it out. Miles, you have the bridge. Puckett, you’re with me. Have a security team meet us down in Transporter Room One.”
Ensign Miles stepped down to the command chair and looked back at Gellar as he and Puckett entered the turbolift.
“But I’m a very minor character!” he protested. “I was just introduced! How am I supposed to command?”
“You’ll figure something out,” Gellar said, as the lift doors close, leaving him the senior crewmember on the bridge.
Counselor Telvin turned to face him, taking his hand and squeezing it. “There now, my friend. You’ll get through this. We’ll get through this.”
Miles looked down at Telvin’s hand, then back up at Telvin. “Um, sir? Why are you stroking my hand?”
“Criminy!” Ford snapped, a white t-shirt draped over his arm as he stepped back onto the bridge about a half hour later, Saral and Nigel Hampstershire following him.
“Still no sign of the Bird of Prey, or Commander Larkin,” Dawson said, rising from the command chair and heading back to sciences.
Ford angrily threw the t-shirt down over the back of the command chair. “What a bunch of useless morons!”
“They were victim to space pirates,” Saral said, stepping back to tactical. “You have to assume they have been through quite the ordeal. They were scared.”
“But not one lead! Not one accurate description of who we’re looking for, other than a sexy British woman in leather boots and a merry band of roguish aliens!”
“At least you got the t-shirt,” Saral said.
“T-shirt?” Dawson asked.
Ford nodded. “It says ‘I beamed down to Frigidia and all I got was this lousy t-shirt. And frostbite.’”
“It was rather cold,” Nigel observed.
“It’s important to note that Commander Ford is supremely aware of his priorities on this mission,” Saral said.
“Sir, you forgot your coffee cup,” a crewman said, walking by and handing Ford a black “Penguins like it cold” coffee cup.
Ford glanced around the bridge. “Back off, people! It’s for Captain Conway!”
“Your engraved flatware has been shipped to your quarters,” the crewman added, stepping back to the turbolift.
“Get off the bridge already, buddy!” Ford called back to him, and looked at the viewscreen. “Somebody find me that Bird of Prey, and find it now!”
Dawson glanced back down at her panel and began working, muttering something softly to herself.
Ford pivoted around in the command chair. “What?”
“I said, you could’ve gotten ME a t-shirt, Commander.”
Ford threw his shirt at her. “There. Take mine! And find that ship!”
Nigel stepped up to Ford’s side, draping his hands behind his back. “Starfleet strategists have theorized that someone on Deidre’s ship is extremely adept with technology. It’s altogether possible that they’ve altered the Voracious, as such to make her virtually undetectable.”
“Well, that’s a little ray of sunshine,” Ford muttered.
“I just want you to be aware that this mission may already be a failure. Your Commander Larkin may already be lost, or worse yet traded to the black market to be…chopped up…like so much scrap metal.”
“Not if I have anything to do with it.” Ford thought a moment. “Wait. Voracious?”
“That’s what she’s named her ship. The Voracious Appetite for Justice.”
Ford shook his head, chuckling softly. “Voracious. I’ve got to meet your wife.”
“If you can find her.”
“Have you found her?” Kamtezen asked, running up to join Gellar in the crowded, chaotic lobby of the Yngwie Malmstein Conference Center.
“Who, Larkin?” Gellar asked, glancing around as Puckett surveyed the area with her security tricorder.
Kamtezen nodded vigorously. “Yes, of course, Larkin. Where is she?”
“We don’t know yet,” Gellar said. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Nobody was hurt, that I can tell. Everyone’s just…disturbed….”
“Well, I would be too. I heard the keynote speaker backed out.”
“I tried to contact our runabout,” Kamtezen continued. “But I couldn’t get through to it.”
“Yeah, that’s because they crashed it for you,” Gellar said. “Some of your engineers are recovering it now.”
“Then we go to Frigidia to rendez-vous with the twin-drive section. Commander Ford is there following a lead that may direct us to Larkin and the Privateers.”
“Twin-drive? The Aerostar split up?”
“We thought we’d cover more ground that way,” Gellar said, then did a double-take at Kamtezen. “Um, Lieutenant…”
Kamtezen had left a trail of silvery powder that was trickling out of his pant leg. “ZRAT IT! My smaltz cycle!”
“Just, in times of stress, my smaltz cycle starts up. It’s not dangerous. It just…produces a powerder. It’s actually quite hypoallergenic.”
“I’ll take your word for it. Cleanup on aisle whatever-this is!” Gellar called out. “Please don’t tell me where that powder is coming from.”
“The answer might surprise you.” Kamtezen shook out both pantlegs. “Look, can we go or what?”
“Yeah,” Gellar said. “I’ll leave a few security officers and some med-techs down here, and report the situation to Starfleet.”
“Can you tell them I’m available to do other gigs?” a man asked, racing up to Gellar.
“Who are you?”
“Ensign Hargrove. I filled in for Seven of Nine.”
Gellar glanced at Hargrove, then at Kamtezen. “There’s a joke to be made here, but even I’m not touching it. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
When Conway’s eyes fluttered open, he found Lanham leaning over him.
“David, you all right?” she asked.
“Fine, but for a zinger of a headache,” Conway moaned, leaning up and rubbing the back of his neck. “What the hell happened?”
“We were sedated.”
“That’s what you were getting all panicked about? Sedatives?”
“No,” Lanham said. “The reports from the Enterprise stated that the Rubiconians punished all lawbreakers in the same way: lethal injection.”
“Well, those laws must have changed, because we’re still here.” Conway sat up on the bench, surveying the cramped, off-white cell that he and Lanham occupied. He rubbed his eyes, trying to focus, and then looked at Lanham again. “Dear…um…why do you have horns?”
Lanham glanced up at her forehead and sighed. “They’re not horns.” She fingered the little metal protuberances that were attached to either side of her forehead. “Best as I can tell, they’re some kind of signal emitters. You’ve got them too.”
“I…” Conway reached up, tentatively touching the pyramid-shaped nubs. “Damn. Wonder how deep they go in?”
“A few inches into the frontal lobe, is my guess,” Lanham said, prompting Conway’s eyes to roll back into his head.
“Why…why…why did I have to ask?”
Lanham shrugged. “I dunno, but you did. So how do we get out of here?”
Conway laid there a few moments moaning, then finally sat up. “We request to speak with a neutral representative. We get someone from the Starfleet JAG office down here and get this fixed!”
“If we tell them that they jabbed sensor probes into our foreheads, that should prompt a quick response.”
Conway grimaced. “You’d think.”
Just then, another tall, muscular blond man strolled in, wearing not much more than a diaper. He surveyed the scene.
“Greetings, violators. I am Barook, your caregiver and adjudicator. Have you been treated well?”
“Except for the metal shards in our brains, yes, fine,” Conway snapped. “I want to speak to someone from the Starfleet JAG office, and I want to speak with them NOW!”
“I’m sorry,” Barook said placidly. “I’m afraid I cannot allow that. You are not permitted to communicate with anyone outside this planet.”
The Rubiconian’s benign attitude started to fade. “Because we had this problem with you Federation people many years ago, and we’ve taken steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“What steps?” Lanham asked.
“First of all, you can’t bring in anybody from your ship, or your Star Fleet. Because they’ll just do what Captain Picard did, which is talk us out of exacting our punishment. It’s annoying, and it’s none of your business how we conduct our affairs.”
“It’s a little of our business, if we’re the ones you’re killing!” Conway snapped.
“That’s just it,” the man said, his tone once again placid. “I’m delighted to tell you that the ultimate penalty is no longer enforced on this planet.”
“I guess that’s a fancy way of saying ‘killing.’”
“Perhaps,” the man said. “Instead, we offer a much more reasonable and fair punishment.”
“Which…is?” Conway asked skeptically.
Barook stepped over to a blinking console, flipped a switch, and headed for the door. “You’ll see. Enjoy!”
<What the hell was that?> Conway thought to himself.
“I don’t know,” Lanham said aloud, and Conway stared at her.
<How is it she can hear my thoughts?>
<Don’t ask me,> Lanham thought back, and Conway’s eyes went wide.
<WHAT THE F***!?!?>
Deidre Bain sat on the “shelf” jokingly referred to as a bed, in her
quarters aboard the Voracious, as there was a bleep at her door.
“Come,” she said, looking up from the padd she was reviewing.
“We’re on a serpentine course through sector 21302,” Besket said, looming in the doorway. “We’re maintaining a speed of Warp Five as ordered, so as not to attract sensor attention.”
“And the phase-cloak?”
“Operational, so far.”
“Keep up the good work, Besket, and you’ll go far in this little war.”
“As far as you?” Besket asked, approaching Deidre.
“You can only hope.”
“Six months ago, I was destined to lead this crew.”
Deidre yawned. “My, how things have changed.”
“We had a ship, not as great as this, but a Cardassian Freighter capable of sublight runs throughout the Cardassian system. We could have hit and run a dozen supply ships, and remained undetectable with Limpet’s sensor tricks.”
“You could have,” Deidre said. “But someone with a grander plan came round, and you should be glad she did.”
Besket looked around. “Your ideas, your ship, your quest. Does any of this have anything remotely to do with the Cardassians?”
Deidre considered that, leaning up on her bunk. “A little, I suppose. Why, are you Cardassian?”
Besket stepped closer to Deidre. “Don’t you forget it, human.”
Deidre stood, eye to eye with Besket. “Is that a threat?”
“Merely an observation,” Besket said. “That if you stumble, if you fail our team in any way, I’ll be there, dagger in hand.”
Deidre nodded. “I see. Would you happen to be referring to…” She reached out, and in a smooth, calm motion, grabbed the dagger from its holster in Besket’s thigh and raised it up to his throat, holding it there, her hand never wavering. “…this dagger?”
“Y-yes,” Besket said.
“Okay. Just checking.” She handed the knife to him and sat back down on her bunk. “Is that all?”
Besket moved back to the doorway, and glanced back at Deidre. “Simply wondering where you plan on going from here. Would you like us to line up potential buyers for the android?”
“Not yet,” Deidre said, a thoughtful glint in her eyes. “I have a better use for ‘Commander’ Larkin than simply selling her off, thanks to Limpet, that boy genius.” She twisted a finger through her hair thoughtfully. “Chin up, Besket. We’re going to have ourselves a spot of fun.”
“I can’t wait,” Besket grumbled, and ducked out of Deidre’s quarters.
Stardate 57906.1. The Aerostar-A is rendez-vousing with the…well, the Aerostar-A, as Lt. Gellar has returned from Galadriel with Lt.Kamtezen in tow. Meanwhile, I’ve been meeting with Nigel Hampstershire to try and determine our next course of action in finding the Cardassian Privateers and rescuing Commander Larkin from their leader, Deidre Bain.
“That wasn’t half bad, was it?” Lt. Commander Ford asked, looking up at the others gathered around the conference table in the Auxiliary Conference Room on the Twin-Drive section.
“It was adequate,” Lt. Saral said from the other end of the table. “However, it is only the ‘Captain’s’ log if the captain records it. You may, in the future, wish to use the words ‘acting captain’s log.’”
“Or ‘Chief Numbskull,’” Lt. Gellar suggested, stepping into the conference room, Kamtezen behind him. “Anybody miss me?”
“Not really,” Ford said, following Gellar with his eyes as he sat down. “Did you pick up any leads on Galadriel?”
“No,” Gellar said, and inclined his head at the Bewhal engineer beside him, “but Kamtezen got powder all over the place.”
Ford blinked. “Well, that’s not so unusual for a Bewhal, is it?”
Nigel Hampstershire leaned forward, from his place next to Ford. “We have to act, gentlemen. Time is of the essence.”
“We’ve put out some feelers,” Ford said. “Even now, Lieutenant Dawson is working on a method to track Deidre Bain’s warship.”
Kamtezen leaned in. “Maybe we should ask Captain Conway for his assistance?”
“I’ve got the matter well in hand,” Ford said. “No need to disturb him.”
“The First Officer has been kidnapped by pirates!” Kamtezen said, leaping to face Ford, sending a cloud of powder up out of his shirtsleeves. “The Captain has to be informed!”
“And you need to grab a dust pan,” Ford said. “Calm down, Mister Whineypants. I plan on sending a comprehensive report to Captain Conway once we have something substantial to report. Right now, we just have hints and allegations.”
“And a missing android,” Saral pointed out.
“You’re not helping me, Saral,” Ford snapped.
“True. But, in point of fact, I am not trying.”
“People, people,” Ford said, gesturing around the table. “If we’re going to rescue Larkin, I need you all on the same page, working together.”
“Have you met our crew?” Gellar asked, arching his eyebrow.
“Could we possibly get another ship out here?” Nigel asked meekly.
Ford whipped around toward him. “No! The Aerostar can handle this. I can handle this!”
“Dawson to Ford,” chimed the comm system. “Sir, we’re picking something up on AWN news that I think you should see.”
“Pipe it down to the conference room,” Ford said. “And transfer the command crew back to the actual bridge. Mister Gellar is here, which means I guess that the ship is back in one piece again.”
“And we somehow managed to keep the two ships from crashing into each other,” Gellar said. “You should have seen it.”
“I was taking a meeting,” Ford replied, and turned toward the viewscreen at the front of the room. “Cue it up, Dawson.”
The viewscreen lit up with the image of a reporter standing outside of a towering, shiny aluminum building.
“Thank you, Pierce,” the smartly-suited woman with blonde bobbed hair said. “I’m standing here in front of the Intergalactic Bank of the Shelliac, where just moments ago, the bank vault was robbed by a highly unusual perpetrator.”
The view changed to dimly-lit internal sensor footage, that showed a pair of armed Shelliac guards standing in front of a vault door. To Ford, the Shelliac pretty much looked like big men hiding under expensive, dark comforters, but he figured, like the Breen and so many others, there was a darn good explanation for that.
Ford’s ruminations were interrupted as the two guards raised their phaser rifles. A dark blur moved toward them, and they surrounded it before Ford could tell what it was.
“Lieutenant Dawson,” Ford said. “Try to enhance the image and zoom in!”
“Already there, sir,” Dawson said, as the image suddenly magnified.
The two Shelliac were unceremoniously thrown aside, slamming into a wall and falling in clothy heaps. All that was left was the perpetrator: A big, oblong, black and white…
“Penguin?” Nigel asked softly.
“Yes, that does appear to be a penguin,” Ford said, agape.
The penguin walked up to the vault door, grasped the handle with its flippers, and lifted it off its hinges effortlessly, tossing it aside as if it weighed nothing.
“Hey, Zack,” Gellar said, looking on. “What did you find on Frigidia?”
“The usual post-break-in chaos,” Ford said slowly. “Plus…a missing penguin costume.”
Saral watched as the penguin marched out of the vault, hauling a massive pallet of latinum bricks. “And now a person with inhuman strength is robbing a vault wearing a penguin suit.”
“Seems like,” Ford said.
The image then returned to that of the reporter, walking toward the camera. “After removing over a thousand bars of gold-pressed latinum, the perpetrator was beamed away. Authorities cannot locate the suspect’s ship, and are currently operating on the assumption that the ship must be using a cloaking device.”
“Any thoughts on the identity of the perpetrator, Patty?” the voice of Pierce, the AWN anchor, broke in.
“It would seem to be a penguin, Pierce.”
“Or an android in a penguin suit,” Gellar pointed out.
“Turn it off, Dawson,” Ford said, turning in his chair. He glanced at the faces around the conference table. “And contact Captain Conway. Tell him he may have to cut his vacation short, no matter how much fun he’s having.”
<Why are you in my brain?>
<Why are YOU in my brain?> Conway stared at Lanham for a few beats of incredulity, then settled back on the bench in his cell. <Stop thinking, stop thinking, stop thinking. Foot sex! Oh, no, God no…little dead kittens…STOP IT! STOPSTOPSTOP!>
Lanham sat down next to Conway and slid an arm around him. “David,” she said aloud. “Calm down. You’re going to hyperventilate.”
She turned him to face her, staring in his eyes. “DAVID!”
“Huh?” Conway asked, finding it odd that the sound of her voice was the same whether she moved her lips or not.
“Settle. Settle and focus,” Lanham said. “Obviously, we have a problem.”
“I can hear your thoughts?”
“Yes. That would seem to be the problem.” <Idiot.>
Lanham blanched. “It just slipped out.” <I can’t help it if I’m the smart one.>
“Hey, now…” Conway stammered. “That’s not fair.” <Besides, I could do better.>
Lanham stood up. “You could do better!? You’re welcomed to try, mister!”
Conway stared up at her. “Now who needs to focus and settle?”
“You’re right.” Lanham sat down again and closed her eyes, trying to think logically. <Now what could they possibly want from us. Starfleet secrets? Access codes? Fleet position?”
<Look in the bottom drawer in my bedroom on the Aerostar. I never meant to use it but I was intrigued by its size…>
Lanham grimaced, then shook Conway by his shoulders. <STOP THINKING, DAMN IT!>
“I’m sorry,” Conway said in a low voice. “Don’t look in my drawer.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” She stood and began to pace. “What do the Rubiconians want?”
“They seem to be pretty serious about their laws, that’s for sure,” Conway said. “Maybe they just want to scare us.”
“It’s just a very odd punishment,” Lanham said, rubbing her chin. “I mean why. Why would they want to do this to us, if not for Federation secrets?”
“Quite simple, really,” a voice said from the other side of the brig’s security field. “It’s a mechanism to prevent your escape.”
Conway and Lanham both stared at the man; a slim, dapper, middle- aged man in a charcoal grey suit, carrying a slim padd-case. He had deep, in-set, calculating eyes and thoughtfully-pursed lips. He stared at Conway and Lanham much as a cat would stare at a juicy piece of tuna.
“I’m here to help. Hal R. Sholen, Defender-at-Large.”
Conway stood and approached the security field. “Defender? That sounds an awful lot like a….”
“Yes. I’m a lawyer.”
“Didn’t we kill all the lawyers like two hundred years ago?”
Sholen laughed. “It was longer ago than that, I’m afraid. But some of us still exist. We roam in small packs, like wolves. My particular group is known as ‘Katz, Sholen, Danbury, and Blarg.”
“So why aren’t you dead?” Conway asked pointedly.
“We escaped.” Sholen shifted boredly from foot to foot. “You’ll find, Captain, that lawyers are a cunning lot. Not unlike yourself.”
<Please!> Lanham thought.
Conway glared back at her. <Sweetie, jeeze….you really hurt my feelings!> He clamped a hand over his mouth. “DAMN! I mean…I mean shut your trap!” He turned to Sholen. “So what exactly can you do for us?”
“If you wish, I can represent you. Advocate for your immediate release.” Sholen flipped open his case and showed Conway a padd with scrolling text. “As you can see, there are several precedents among Federation statutes in this matter. It won’t be difficult to establish good cause to release you from this sentence, time served.”
“You could do that?” Lanham asked.
Sholen nodded. “You’re far too important to lose, Captain.”
“What about me?” Lanham asked.
“Frankly, you’re expendable,” Sholen said bluntly.
<EXPENDABLE?> Lanham’s thoughts boomed.
He turned to Conway. “You, on the other hand, are of supreme interest to us. We’ve followed your exploits with great interest, the past couple of years.”
“You have?” <I’ve had exploits?>
“Yes. Ever since the heroic stand you took against institutionalized religion on the U.S.S. Explorer. You were willing to sacrifice everything to prove a point, while upholding the spirit and letter of Federation Law.”
“Well, they did try to take away my coffee…” <Does anyone understand me? Who am I, really?>
Sholen chuckled mildly as Conway angrily thumped himself in the head. “It’s not happenstance that brought me to you today, Captain. Nor was it coincidence that brought me to your cell on Trill, when you once again found yourself victim of a planetary plot against you.”
“On Trill…what do you mean?” Conway thought a moment. <Potatoes, potatoes, I love potatoes….battered and fried, any which way, potatoes are the subterranean snack that makes my day!>
Lanham stepped forward, trying desperately to drown out Conway’s thoughts with thoughts of her own. “Is it really necessary that we be…plugged in…to each other’s thoughts like this?”
“It’s a simple security measure. It enables the staff here, and your appointed defender, by the way, to monitor your thoughts. That way we can judge motive, intent, and all the little details that make up a trial case.” He sighed. “Apparently, though, an unfortunate byproduct of the neural transmitters is that they can easily cross-link with transmitters that are within the broadcast range. It’s not unusual for Rubiconian cell-mates to beat each other senseless before their cases ever go to trial, because they can read each other’s thoughts.”
“Maybe it was better when they just killed people on the spot,” Lanham posited.
<Mashed, julienned, and don’t forget curly fries!> Conway thought- sang, until finally his eyes widened in recollection. “Wait! You’re the hooded guy who came in to chat with me when I was waiting for my trial on Trill!”
“It took you that long to recall that?” Sholen asked, shaking his head.
Conway pointed at the back of his neck. “Considering I have a six- inch probe jabbed into my brain stem, I think I’m doing pretty good.”
“Yes, well this year’s Daystrom Prize is yours for the taking then, I suppose.”
Conway stepped up to the field, curling his hands into fists. “Are you here to help us or not, Sholen?”
“Oh, definitely the former,” Sholen said. “But I want you to help us too. We won’t ask you to make any commitments now. Contracts made under duress are often more trouble than they’re worth. But I want to give you some food for thought. And…I’m sorry it’s not potatoes.”
“We all have different ways of thinking!” Conway snapped.
“Be that as it may, I want you to consider this: Come to law school. Let us train you, so you can complete your destiny and become a formidable trial attorney.”
Conway laughed. “That’s rich. Considering that my current office comes with the ability to launch quantum torpedoes from my desk, it’s not likely.”
“You yearn for something, David Conway,” Sholen said, boring into Conway with his eyes. “You’re aching with a need I can fulfil.”
<This is going somewhere really strange,> Lanham thought.
“You’re cunning, intelligent, and reasonably well-spoken,” Sholen said. “We have people who can…polish you. In the meantime, you have a skill that’s impossible to learn. You, sir, are an outstanding arguer.”
<You’re right about that one,> Lanham muttered to herself.
“Consider my offer,” Sholen said, and stepped away. “Meanwhile, I’ll be upstairs conversing with your jailers. I should have word for you soon. Bye for now!”
Conway watched Sholen walk away. <That was weird,> he thought.
Lanham shook her head. <And THIS isn’t?>
<No. This definitely is too.>
“The penguin, in her natural habitat, is far from the genial flightless avian we’ve come to know,” Deidre Bain said, crouching on the upper gangway that surrounded the Voracious’s cargo bay, as Larkin, penguin head now off, paced the bay. In the locked chambers beneath her, a Legat’s ransom in latinum bricks resided, all spoils of Deidre’s newfound toy.
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” Limpet asked, standing behind Deidre, observing with hands clasped behind his back.
“It’s a kick!” Deidre exclaimed, dangling her legs over the railing. “Make her speak again.”
“I’d warn against that,” Limpet said, withdrawing the small, blocky transmitter he’d been using to control Larkin’s movements. “It’s posed…problems…thus far.”
“Nonsense. I want to hear what she has to say.”
“None of it will be good.”
“Just be a dear and do it, Limpet.”
“Yes, Captain,” Limpet said, and thumbed a control.
“…disgrace to everything Starfleet stands for. I will speak to a neutral representative. You will cease using me in such a humiliating and corrupt fashion, and I will have satisfaction!” Larkin turned and shook an impotent flipper at Deidre.
“Well, good to see your emotion program is working correctly.”
“It is working overtime, I assure you,” Larkin said. “You must cease and desist this course of action immediately.”
Deidre yawned, and lazily dragged herself to her feet, leaning over the railing that overlooked the cargo bay. “Oh, dear Larkin, I intend to continue this course of action for a good while longer.”
“To what end?”
“You haven’t put it together yet? I want latinum. Cold, hard, gold-pressed latinum. Fuel for the good fight for the people of Cardassia.”
“There are other means,” Larkin said, pursing her lips. “Diplomacy, mediation…”
“BOR-RING!” Deidre announced, folding her arms. “Besides, the Cardassian Interim Government would never allow it. They’re happy with the status quo. Hoard Federation supplies for the upper class and ensure none of it makes its way to the Cardassians who need it.”
“These are issues that can be discussed with Federation representatives. They doubtless have strategies they can employ to…”
“Tried that already,” Deidre said, turning around and planting her hands on the railing, hoisting herself and testing her strength, dangling in mid-air. “My ponce of a husband did what he could but was unsurprisingly ineffective. Cardassians don’t listen. All they understand is violence.”
“We do enjoy a good opera every now and then,” Limpet said.
“Violence and opera,” Deidre said. “Same thing if you ask me. Fun in short bursts, but ultimately exhausting.” She let herself down from her perch and landed on the deck plating again. “Rather like sex, too.”
“We should deactivate her,” Limpet said. “Use her only when needed, and keep her vocal program offline.”
“You are making a colossal mistake,” Larkin said, glaring up at Deidre. “The Federation can be a powerful ally. You do not want them as your enemy.”
“They won’t be my enemy, as long as they don’t get in my way.”
“I can assure you, if you continue this behavior, they will get in your way. With crushing and powerful force. You will soon find that there is nowhere to hide from the awesome resources and staggering tenacity of Starfleet.”
“You’re right, Limpet,” Deidre said boredly. “Turn her voice off.”
“Even now, they are strategizing. They will not rest until I am fr…”
“Ford to Gellar.”
“Report to the readyroom immediately.”
“Should you even be in there?”
“Shut up and get in here. I have a problem.”
Moments later, Lt. Gellar appeared in the doorway to the captain’s readyroom. “Having a hard time understanding the lines of demarcation surrounding the Shelliac Corporate?” He glanced down at Ford, who was on the floor.
“No. My hand’s stuck behind this bookcase,” Ford said, staring at Conway’s bookcase with barely restrained ire. “I was playing with a marble and it fell back there. I tried to get it and now…” He wriggled his arm angrily. “I’m stuck.”
“Oh boy,” Gellar said. “This is a big job. I’m going to need to call in a crack team of engineers.”
“This isn’t funny!” Ford said. “As your commanding officer, I order you to help me move this bookcase off my hand!”
“Ooh, you know what, I think I just heard the Red Alert klaxon,” Gellar said, turning to the door.
“Would you stop fooling around!” Ford growled.
Gellar laughed and stepped over to the bookcase. “Want me to blow it up with a photon grenade?”
“Okay, okay,” Gellar said, and tipped the bookcase forward, prompting Ford to remove his hand and shake it out, wincing. He tipped the bookcase back and knelt, studying its contents. “What does Conway read anyway? Moby Dick, Shakespeare, Chicken Soup for the Soul. Standard editions in Random House’s ‘Captain’s Collection,’ along with a buttload of Tom Clancy..”
“And some historical text on NASCAR,” Ford said, rubbing his hand and stepping back behind the desk. “Want to know something else annoying? The replicator only makes coffee.”
“Are you surprised?”
Ford shrugged and sat down. “I guess not. I just figured he might be in the mood for a chai tea or a chantico or something, sometime.”
“Obviously not,” Gellar said, sitting down across from the desk. “So have you figured out our next move?”
“I’m basically doing it,” Ford said, and stared at the blank viewer next to him. “Waiting for Captain Conway to respond.”
“No luck there yet, eh?”
“How’d you know?”
“I’m the tactical officer. I monitor all our incoming and outgoing communications.”
“Bully for you,” Ford said. “What does that do for me?”
“Well, I have one communication in particular that might help.”
Ford looked up, brightening. “Really?”
Gellar nodded, then cupped his hands to his mouth. “GET OFF YOUR ASS AND DO SOMETHING!”
Ford scooted back a little. “Please, don’t beat around the bush. Tell me how you really feel.”
“Seriously, Zack,” Gellar said, leaning back. “The captain and his wife are on a civilian pleasure planet. If they even have access to a comm station, they probably only check it once a day. They probably haven’t gotten to their comm messages yet.”
“I wonder if I should try to get a message to him via samurai assassin?”
“I’m thinking that’s not an option, but you get points for creativity,” Gellar said, then stood. “But as your acting first officer, I think it’s my duty to tell you that we’re drifting aimlessly right now. The crew’s not going to hang on waiting for answers forever. They need some leadership, direction.”
“And Kamtezen needs to keep his powder in his pants where it belongs,” Ford mused. He looked up at Gellar. “Okay, say I decide to act. What do I do?”
“Well, you’re the guy in charge, you tell me.”
“Do we have any way to track the Voracious?”
“Dawson and Kamtezen have been working on it around the clock. They think they can track the neutrino emissions as she cloaks and decloaks.”
“What’s the range?”
Gellar shrugged. “Couple parsecs.”
“We’re gonna have to be close,” Ford said. “And we have to assume Deidre’s not done raiding rich planets near Cardassia. After all, she’s got access to a super burglar in Commander Larkin, and seemingly has total control over her.”
“True. So what’s our next move?”
Ford swivelled in his chair. “We have to find a rich planet near Cardassian space. Any come to mind.”
“A few. Golgothor, Leseppia, Dredian Three….” He rubbed his chin. “Well, then there’s always…”
Ford looked up. “Yes, there is!”
Gellar’s eyes widened. “It would be a tempting target.”
Ford stood up, tapping his combadge. “Ford to Garrity. Lay in a course for Ferenginar and engage at maximum warp when ready.”
Gellar nodded, following Ford out onto the bridge. “And what do we do when we get there, Mister Bright Ideas?”
“We’ll play it by ear.”
“Wake up!” Dr. Lanham demanded, shaking Conway’s shoulders as he reclined in his bunk in the Rubicon cell.
“Wha?” Conway stirred, shifting up on his elbows. “What?”
“You were dreaming.”
“I could…see your dreams…” Lanham trailed off, her face a little pale. “David, you need to spend some time with Counselor Telvin when you get back to the Aerostar.”
“Why? Oh, the thing with the rabbits. Don’t worry about it. I’ve had that dream since I was six.”
“You’re not making things any better. Please just don’t talk right now. And don’t think. Especially about rabbits!”
“Well then what am I supposed to do?” Conway asked. <It’s not like you’re going to be very conversational.>
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“This is just what my friends warned me about getting married,” Conway said. “You get in trouble for even thinking something.”
“You do if I can read your thoughts!” Lanham cocked her head. “Wait a sec. Since when do you have friends?”
“I talk to people!” <I have as many friends as you.>
“I’ll have you know I went to a bazaar on Glentab Eight with Ensign Paup from Xenobotany just last month.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard Sherrie Paup is lots of fun,” Conway said. “Did she show you her scrapbook?”
“That thing is amazing!” Lanham said defensively. “You only wish you could create something so beautiful!”
“Stop it!” <Ass.>
Conway stood up and walked over to the forcefield that penned him and his wife inside the cell. “We have got to get out of here. We’re going to end up killing each other.”
<Should have finished the job on that mountain.>
Conway whirled on a heel, pointing at Lanham. “I KNEW IT! You did try to kill me that day!”
“It was trade winds!”
“You were thinking you should have finished the job…”
Lanham shrugged. “I was just being fanciful.”
Conway and Lanham turned to see Hal Sholen standing on the other side of the forcefield, accompanied by a muscular, bronzy guy in a g- string.
“Captain, Doctor…this is Governor Leftel. I’ve been in discussions with him about commuting your sentence.”
Conway bowed. “Governor. Have you just come from the beach, or an important assembly meeting? It’s hard to tell, you know.”
“Volleyball,” Leftel said, and paced in front of the cell. “You know, it’s unheard of in Rubiconian Law to commute a sentence.”
“But there’s always a first time,” Sholen said, holding up a finger.
“Mister Sholen here was just telling me about some of the benefits of most favored planet status with the Federation.”
“Don’t you already have that?”
Leftel looked down. “We have junior member status.”
“Oh, would that be because of the fact that your ships can only go warp two, or is it the fact you all walk around in your underwear all day?”
“You’re just jealous that the average Rubiconian has zero percent body fat!” Leftel snapped back.
“I’d like to see data on that…” Lanham smouldered.
“People, please,” Sholen said, stepping in front of Leftel. “We’re getting sidetracked. The point of this discussion is that Governor Leftel and I have worked out an amicable resolution to this situation.”
“Which is?” Conway asked.
“Mister Sholen pointed out the virtues of cooperation to me,” Leftel said. “We want to demonstrate to the Federation that we’re a merciful people, and that our earlier transgressions are no indication of our current, benevolent nature.”
“Plus, getting most favored planet status for Rubicon would be a boon to your political career,” Lanham pointed out.
“There…is that,” Leftel admitted.
“I’m not sure how I can help you with that,” Conway said.
Sholen narrowed his eyes at Conway. “Sure you can. You just make a recommendation to the Federation Council. They respect your opinion. They’ll listen to you.”
“They almost had me relieved of command last year,” Conway said. Then Lanham glared at him.
<Don’t screw this up!> she thought.
“Right, of course,” Conway said. “That’s all behind us now.”
Leftel glanced at a small screen next to the cell. A row of text ran across the screen:
Conway, David A: No it’s not. I’m lying. I’m lying. I’m lying. I’m lying. I’m lying.
“Must be a faulty transmitter,” Sholen said uneasily, maneuvering between Leftel and the screen. “Do we have a deal, Governor?”
He reached out and grabbed Leftel’s hand, pumping it vigorously. “Good. Glad to hear it. I’ll draw up the official documents and we’ll be on our way.”
“Just one small matter,” Lanham spoke up. She pointed at the back of her neck. “The cigar-shaped probe stuck in our brains!”
“Oh,” Leftel said, pursing his lips. “You want us to remove the probes?”
“No. We’re in a contest to see how long we can go without killing each other!” Conway said through gritted teeth.
“I’m sorry,” Leftel said. “We don’t know how to remove the probes. Nobody has ever needed them removed, as our prisoners are either put to death or spend life imprisoned.”
“Warp two,” Lanham said, shaking her head.
“All right, then,” Sholen said. “Let’s get you guys out of here, and worry about the transmitters later. I’m sure you’re terribly missed on the Aerostar.”
“Any word from Conway?” Ford asked, leaning forward in the command chair, as the Aerostar raced toward Ferenginar.
“Nothing yet,” Gellar said, looking up from his console. “I’m getting kind of worried about him and Lanham.”
“You’ve always wanted to shmaltz her, haven’t you?”
“I don’t know what you’re referring to. But I thank you for saying it in Nausicaan,” Gellar muttered.
“Who cares,” Ford said. “We don’t need Captain Conway. I can handle this on my own.”
“There’s a boy,” Gellar said. “Speak it, then be it.”
“Who told you that crap?”
“Telvin, at one of his motivational speeches.”
“Commander Ford!” a high-pitched British voice sounded from the aft turbolift.
“Crap, not him again,” Ford said, swiveling in the command chair. “Ah, Nigel! Good to see you. What’s happening, you old sot?”
“That’s a question I should be asking you,” Nigel said. “I’ve been waiting belowdecks for an update on my wife’s status for hours now, and have received not so much as a word from your bridge.”
“We’ve been kind of busy trying to find said wife, at the moment,” Ford said, shifting in the command chair. “So settle down.”
“I will not settle down!” Nigel said. “I’ve repeatedly warned you about my wife’s intentions, and you’ve done nothing.”
“We’re going to Ferenginar to intercept her now!”
“We think that’s her next likely target.”
Nigel calmed. “I see. Well, is there anything I can do?”
“Shut up and get out of our way,” Ford said. “We have a wonderful bar belowdecks. Perhaps you’ve been there? The Starlight Lounge-A?”
“Mother doesn’t allow me to drink,” Nigel said, sitting primly in the chair beside Ford.
“Your mother tells you what you can and can’t do? What are you, forty?”
“Mother musn’t be disobeyed. I live under her roof, after all.”
Ford blinked. “You’re a Federation Ambassador, and you live with your Mother?”
“Make fun of me if you will, but I needn’t remind you that you’ve got blood in this game now. That of your Commander Larkin.”
“She doesn’t have any blood,” Ford said. “But your point is taken. Now if you’ll just take your point and go somewhere else…”
Nigel stood. “Don’t give my wife quarter for a single moment. If you have an opportunity, you must disable her ship at all costs. Don’t be merciful. She’ll certainly show no mercy for you.”
“I hope you kids didn’t buy a whole lot of matching linens,” Ford said to himself as Nigel ducked back into the turbolift.
That man was very off-putting. There was a word for guys like him, but Ford couldn’t think of it.
“Ponce,” Deidre said, drawing her knees up to her chin and staring at the holo of Nigel on the dresser in her cramped cabin. “Poncey fool. You’d better not be coming after me.”
The buzzer at her door sounded, and she put her feet down on the floor, leaning up. “Come in.”
Her door opened to reveal Limpet. “I thought you’d like to know that we’re about to take up orbit around Ferenginar Seven.”
“Good. Have the other alterations been made to Commander Larkin?”
“They are untested, but they’ve been made.”
Deidre clapped Limpet on the back and led him out of her cabin. “I trust you implicitly, my boy. Now let’s away to the bridge and get a good seat for the show.”
“Did you participate in Community Service Day?” asked Crunk, head of the Ferenginar Seven Latinum Repository Guard (Motto: “Loving would be easy if your colours were like my dream / Gold, gold, gold and gold; gold, gold and gold.”)
Dunk, Crunk’s partner for the day, moved his phaser rifle from one shoulder to the next and twitched a bit, as the two of them stood in front of the door that led to one of the five richest latinum vaults in the Ferengi Alliance. “Yes. We painted the dwelling of a destitute female.”
“Did you put clothes on her?” Crunk asked.
Dunk shrunk a bit. “Yes.”
“Hell of a thing,” Crunk said. “Were you reimbursed for your troubles?”
Dunk reached behind his back and pulled out what looked like a cloth white bowl, and popped it on his head. “I got a hat. A…base-bawl hat.”
“Hell of a thing.” Crunk kicked at the ground. “Almost makes you wonder why we even have vaults anymore, if nobody is supposed to care about latinum.”
“People still care. I still care,” Dunk muttered.
“How long do you think this… benevolence thing…will last?”
“Until somebody worthy steps up to dethrone Nagus Rom,” Dunk growled.
“Be careful who you say that to. He’s got lobes everywhere.”
“I’ll show him lobes.”
“Seriously. You never know what he might do. I’ve heard stories of Nagus Zek making Ferengi disappear altogether!”
Dunk waved a dismissive hand. “Zek, maybe. This is a kinder, gentler Ferenginar. Rom’s not that kind of Nagus.”
Suddenly, the air in front of Crunk and Dunk crackled, and a massive penguin appeared in front of them.
“AYIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! Avian attacker!” Dunk screeched, falling into a crouch. Crunk quickly followed suit, prostrating himself in front of the penguin.
“Kill him! He’s the one who offended the great Rom!”
“Welcher!” Dunk seethed. “That’s the last time I split my boiled slug with you at lunch!”
“Shut up and take your punishment like a Ferengi!” Crunk snapped, covering his head.
The penguin merely picked them both up, and tossed them easily into a wall. They slid down the wall, unconscious no doubt from a mix of panic, fear, and concussion.
The penguin then calmly walked up to the vault and stared at it. Deidre looked on through a sensor mounted on the penguin’s head. She knew that the Ferengi vault would take more than brute strength.
But not much more.
Within the large penguin head, Larkin’s neural transmitter flared to life, tapping into the vault’s computerized locking mechanism.
In twenty seconds, she’d run through every possible polynumeric combination and popped the vault’s lock open.
A few moments later, the Voracious locked on to the massive supply of latinum bars within the vault and beamed them aboard.
Larkin was beamed up moments after that, much to her chagrin.
“Explorer. Richards here.”
Kamtezen glanced up at the viewer and gave Richards a small smile. “Commander. So good to see you! Hope I’m not interrupting anything?”
Richards shook his head. Kamtezen could see the backdrop was his quarters, so he must have been off-duty. “I was just having lunch. What can I do for you?”
“Oh. Just wanted to catch up on old times. You know. Small talk and such.”
“Right. Well, I know we didn’t leave on the best of…” Richards cocked his head. “I can see the powder stains on your jacket, Lieutenant. Smaltz cycle again?”
“It’s been stressful,” Kamtezen admitted.
“Uh-huh. Well, if that’s about it, I’m back on duty in a few…”
“Larkin sends her love!” Kamtezen blurted.
“Oh, she does?”
Kamtezen nodded. “She misses you quite a bit, Commander.”
“Isn’t she at a conference right now?”
“Yes. But she misses you no matter where she goes.”
“That’s nice. I should contact her, see what’s…”
“Oh, no! You don’t want to do that. Don’t worry yourself.”
“I wasn’t worried….”
“Everything’s really under control,” Kamtezen said.
“What do you mean? What’s under control?”
“You know, look at the time…I’d better be going. Could you just tell me one thing?”
“If Larkin was being controlled by a remote cordical interface of some kind, what would you use to override it?”
Richardson grimaced. “Kamtezen, I can tell you’re hiding something from me.”
“Not at all!”
“Stop the charade. For God’s sake, just stop it.”
“If you and Kristen are going to get involved in some kind of freaky positronic foreplay, you should at least be safe about it.”
“No problem. Now listen up. And get a padd. This is a little complicated…”
Deidre folded her arms and leaned against the back of the command chair on the Voracious, then nodded at Speers, the conn officer. “Lay in a course out of the system, Speers. Limpet, reactivate cloak.”
“Sir, sensors just picked up another contact entering the Ferenginar system,” Limpet said, looking up from his console. “Federation starship. Prometheus-class.”
“The Aerostar,” Deidre said, licking her lips. “Guess the game’s afoot, eh?”
“What does that mean?” Besket asked, hunched over his panel.
“It’s just something British people say!” Deidre snapped. “Marrazz, ready our weapons.”
“There should be no reason for concern,” Limpet said. “We’re cloaked now. The Aerostar will not be able to detect us.”
“Are you so sure?” Deidre asked, tapping the back of her chair.
Limpet straightened. “I’d stake my reputation on it.”
“That’s comforting,” Besket deadpanned.
“We can discuss our respective reputations whenever you see fit,” Limpet replied.
“Boys,” Deidre said, watching the Aerostar angle into the system. “I’ve got a Federation starship bearing down on me. I need to know that we’re not being detected.”
“We’re not,” Limpet. “This type of cloak is tremendously difficult to penetrate.”
Deidre nodded. “Okay. All the same, send two people down to the cargo bay to keep an eye on Larkin. Keep her inactive. I don’t want any skullduggery.”
“My universal translator must be broken,” Besket said.
“Forget it,” Deidre said. “Let’s just power down to minimum. Just enough to get us out of the system on full impulse. Hopefully, we’ll…”
Suddenly a trill came from Limpet’s panel. “Sir, the Aerostar is broadcasting a general hail.”
“Put it on,” Deidre said, gesturing at the screen.
The screen blinked to a view of a shortish, cocky-looking man standing in the center of the Aerostar bridge, as officers walked back and forth busily behind him.
“Privateer ship Voracious: This is Captain Zachary Ford of the Starship Aerostar. We know you’re here. Further, we know that if you try to go to warp, we’ll detect a phase change in your cloaking device, and will lock onto it with our quantum torpedoes. Shortly thereafter, you’ll be space dust. So we so humbly suggest that you drop your cloak, give us back our android, and turn yourselves over to our custody.” Ford winked. “And trust me, Deidre. I like handcuffs.”
“Odious man,” Deidre said, wrinkling her nose. “Is he telling the truth, Limpet?”
“This model cloaking device is somewhat susceptible to phase- change variances,” Limpet said. “I suppose…”
“What happened to staking your career?” Besket asked, turning.
“It’s a smallish chance.”
Deidre sighed. “A smallish chance that’s doubled if they have a half-competent science staff over there. Oh, I don’t know, say the kind of staff a Federation starship would have!”
“That’s not just any starship,” Besket said. “I’ve taken the liberty of studying Commander Larkin’s ship.”
“Glad to know you’ve found ways to fill your spare time,” Deidre sighed, scrubbing a hand over her face. “What have you found?”
“That the Aerostar is a relatively new ship, only having been in service for less than three years. During those three years, she’s run afoul of the Trill, the Orions, and half a dozen other species. She was responsible for the destruction of an entire star system in the Gamma Quadrant just last year.”
“Yes. But does she have rear spoilers?” Deidre asked.
“Come again?” asked Besket.
“Nothing. I swear, Cardassians have no sense of humor.”
“Thank you,” Besket said. “At any rate, although the ship is more than a match for us; her crew leaves something to be desired. We have a marked psychological advantage here that we can exploit.”
“Good to know,” Deidre said. “But hopefully we won’t have to exploit it. Marrazz: What’s the Aerostar’s position relative to us?”
“Ninety million kilometers and closing on a rough intercept course,” the Yridian said. “No way to know if they’ve spotted us yet. Their course is erratic.”
“No way they’ve spotted us,” Limpet said. “No way they can.”
“We’ll see,” Dedire said. “Meanwhile, take us out of the system. In the opposite direction, if you please, Speers.”
“No way we can spot them,” Dawson said, leaning over her panel, as Lt. Kamtezen jogged onto the bridge and took his station at engineering. “I mean, we know what to look for, but it’s a split-second chance. Maybe.”
“You don’t know how much better that makes me feel,” Ford said, shifting in the command chair, leaning over so he could see the Voracious on the viewscreen as officers walked back and forth in front of him. “Guys…you can stop walking around in the background. I’m off the comm, so I won’t need extras anymore.”
“What if you get on another comm?” one of the two ensigns said. “You might need us!”
“I’ll take my chances. Go back to your stations. If you have stations, that is.”
“Yes, sir,” the other ensign sighed; and the pair headed into the turbolift.
“You have a striking way of using your resources,” Nigel said, from the seat to Ford’s left.
“Thanks, I guess,” Ford said. He angled toward the engineering console. “So if we can’t locate the Voracious, tell me we can do the next best thing.”
“Just a few more minutes,” Kamtezen said. “I’m still aligning the cadion pulse. It’s tricky.”
“Well, do your everything in your powder…” Ford covered his face. “I mean power.”
Kamtezen nodded. “If this works, you’ll be sorry you insulted me.”
“No, I really won’t,” Ford admitted.
“Sir!” Dawson called out. “Subspace spike, directly behind us! I think it’s the Voracious!”
Ford leapt from his chair. “Bring us around, Garrity. Closing speed. We won’t have long before they change course.”
Garritty nodded, and brought the Aerostar swiftly around. So swift, in fact, that Ford felt dizzy.
He turned, clutching his stomach, and looking at Kamtezen. “What kind of range do we need for your plan to work?”
“Few thousand kilometers,” Kamtezen said.
Ford turned to Gellar. “Any way of knowing if we get that close?”
“Swell,” Ford said. “Any good news?”
“GOT IT!” Kamtezen shouted. “Signal match confirmed!”
“Do your thing, Lieutenant!” Ford ordered.
Kamtezen nodded, and pushed a control. “Done, sir!”
“Gellar,” Ford continued, jogging to tactical. “Lock onto the site of that spike and fire phasers. Both forward emitters, zero elevation, wide arc!”
Gellar nodded and tapped at the phaser controls.
Phasers lanced out in opposite directions, cutting a swath across space.
Ford stared blankly at the emptiness of space. “Anything?”
“No confirmed hits,” Gellar said, looking at his panel.
He turned to Kamtezen. “Do we know if your thing worked?”
The Bewhal shook his head. “No, but I’m starting to chafe. Permission to go belowdecks and take care of this…smaltz.”
“Ugh,” Ford muttered. “Granted.”
“Well, sizzlechest, what do we do now?” Gellar asked, folding his arms.
“We lie in wait, like a jungle predator,” Ford said.
“A jungle predator in way over its head,” Gellar said.
Nigel clapped his thighs, and stood up. “Well, blokes, if you’ll excuse me, it’s tea time. Anyone care to join me?”
“So incredibly not,” Ford muttered, and sat back down in the command chair.
“My probe itches,” Conway said, rapping his fingers on the controls aboard the runabout Kissimmee.
“Do you want an aloe injection?” Lanham asked. “I can get some from the back…”
“No,” Conway said. “It’s fine.” <Make it stop itching!>
“I’ll just get the aloe injection,” Lanham said, and rose from her seat.
Hal Sholen, meanwhile, took his cup of coffee out of the replicator slot and carried it to the seat behind Conway. “Charming woman,” he said.
“I like her,” Conway said.
“And beautiful, too.”
“She’s all right.” Conway turned. “She’s also taken, Mister.”
“Of course,” Sholen said, holding up a hand. “I’m sorry, I meant nothing by it. Just an observation.”
“Uh-huh,” Conway said, and turned back toward the onrushing stars. “Hey,” he asked, glancing back. “When did you want us to rendez- vous with your ship?”
Sholen raised his eyebrows. “Ship?”
“Yeah. I just assumed your ship was in this sector, rather than in orbit of Rubicon, since you’re, you know, still with us.”
“That’s a critical point,” Sholen said. “I don’t actually have a ship.”
“Doesn’t your firm…?”
“Don’t actually have a firm, either,” Sholen said. “I’m something of a free agent at the moment.”
Conway turned in his seat, as Lanham returned with a hypospra. “What about Katz, Sholen, and Bliggity…something.”
“Yes, well, as I said, I’m a partner in that group,” Sholen said. “At least, until they finish buffing my name off the sign in front of the building.”
“Sounds like you haven’t been altogether honest with us,” Conway said, folding his arms. “If only you had one of these stupid probes stuck in your head.”
“And, pity, alas I don’t,” Sholen said. “I assure you, though, it wasn’t my intention to be dishonest with you. My partners and I have simply had a difference of opinion.”
“Where does that leave you?” Lanham asked.
“At an impasse, and offering a substantial opportunity to the right taker.” He leaned forward, locking eyes with Conway. “Think about it, Captain: Having a lawyer aboard the Aerostar. A general counsel. An advisor in all things related to intergalactic law.”
“I do break the law pretty often,” Conway said. “Would be nice to have somebody to get me off the hook when that happens.”
<He lied to us!> Lanham thought. <He can’t be trusted!>
<Shhh! I like him. He sees something in me. Now back off!>
<Back OFF?> Lanham stood and walked out of the cockpit. <You’re dismissing me. Just like you dismiss me every time I try to talk to you about something important.>
<Like having kids! Starting a family! When, David.. When?>
<LA LA LA!> Lanham pictured Conway slapping a hand over his mental mouth. <I can’t think, I can’t think! Pandas, laserbeams, impotence, Foghat, shuttlebay!>
“Problem?” Sholen asked politely.
Conway shook his head. “Nevermind. Look, you can come with us back to the Aerostar, and we’ll take it from there. If you’re useful, maybe we can find a way to keep you around.”
“You’ve made me a very happy man, Captain,” Sholen said. “You won’t regret this.”
“There’s not much about this trip I don’t regret,” Conway muttered, staring at the cabin door. “And I for one will be thrilled to get back to the Aerostar.” He leaned forward and tapped at the comm console. “That reminds me. I need to check in and make sure Ford hasn’t scuttled my ship yet.”
He tapped a few more controls, and the panel blinked, scrolling text across the screen. As Conway read the text, his eyes went wide.
The text was accompanied by the computer’s always-timely voice: “David Conway. You have…FORTY-SEVEN…new messages. To check new messages, press….”
Duff was a squat, ruddy-faced Tellarite who still wasn’t sure why he joined Deidre’s band of thugs, other than that he truly enjoyed complaining about the state of affairs in the galaxy.
He was the only Tellarite aboard, the rest of the crew consisting mostly of Cardassians, Lesseppians, and a few Yridians. And, of course, Deidre. Human to the bitter end.
But Duff had a place on the Voracious. He was relied on for security matters, forming landing parties, coordinating raiding missions. He felt needed, which was nice.
Of his experiences in his months aboard the Voracious, though, Duff’s current duty wasn’t the most exciting.
He rocked on his heels, tossing his disruptor from hand to hand, as he stood outside the door to the cargo bay in the belly of Deidre’s rusty Bird of Prey.
Within, their “precious” cargo, the android Commander Larkin, sat in a remote-induced stupor, waiting for her next mission of pillaging.
Duff felt somewhat sorry for the android. She had no choice in this. Was merely a pawn. Duff had felt that way sometimes too, but hadn’t shared it with the others. Deidre’s rhetoric was poweful, and had a way of sweeping up the crew and carrying them away on a latinum tide, their eyes filled with dreams of the riches she’d bring them.
Still, Duff wondered, when would he be seeing some of these riches? It wasn’t like the Voracious crew kept much more than was needed to run their ship. Weren’t they missing the point of being pirates?
Duff considered these heavy thoughts as the cargo bay doors opened behind him and a massive, headless penguin stepped through, and bludgeoned him unconscious with its flippers.
“Now we are getting somewhere,” Larkin said flatly, and stooped to grab Duff’s disruptor in her flippers and waddle down the corridor.
“Where to now, Deidre?” Besket asked, pacing the bridge as the Voracious, snug in her cloak, soared through space.
“Away from Starfleet, that’s where,” Deidre said, hugging one leather-clad leg and leaning back in the command chair. She twisted a finger through her hair idly as she stared at the viewscreen. “You have a better idea?”
“I just want to know there’s a point to all this.”
“Of course there is. The good Commander Larkin is obviously a hot commodity. We have to unload her to get Starfleet off our backs. Limpet’s belowdecks on the comm right now lining up buyers.”
“We’re already loaded down with latinum,” Besket said, leaning against his panel. “What are we going to do with all of it? Melt it down into a statue of you we can mount in the town square of Zeppera City?”
“Not at all,” Deidre said. “Although that’s a fetching idea. No, we’re going to put this latinum where it belongs. In the hands of good Cardassian citizens who need it.”
“I’m touched,” Besket muttered.
“We’ll keep a finder’s fee. But the rest goes to the rebuilding effort. Get Cardassia back on her feet again so they don’t have to be the Federation’s lapdogs. Don’t you want that?”
“Sure, as long as I’m lining my latinum locker as well,” Besket said.
“You’ll not go hungry, I promise that,” Deidre said. She leaned over and pressed a control on her chair arm. “Limpet, dear heart, have you found anything yet?”
“Yes ma’am. I’ll be up shortly with the details. I think you’ll be very pleased.”
Deidre wrinkled her nose as she smiled. “I know I will be.”
“Kalia to Bain,” the voice of Deidre’s Cardassian surgeon rang over the comm system.
“Yes, Kalia, what can I do for you?”
“We’ve got a bit of a problem.”
“Duff just stumbled in here, complaining of being beaten severely about the head by a giant penguin.”
Deidre worked her jaw thoughtfully. “You know, on any other day, I’d seriously question that.” She shot out of her chair. “Limpet: Activate your control device.”
Limpet nodded, palming the padd he’d used to operate Larkin before. “Captain, it’s not responding! Somebody overrode the control frequency with a cadion pulse.”
Deidre slammed her fist down on the railing that ran behind her chair. “Security! Seal all compartments. General Quarters Alert. Lock out all computer systems. Commander Larkin is loose on the ship!”
Speers, Besket, and Marrazz scrambled to their stations as Deidre circled nervously, running a hand through her long, blonde hair, pulling it back behind her shoulders. “Find it. Find HER. Now.”
“She’d come here,” Besket said, tapping at his panel. “To take over the ship.”
Deidre nodded. “Perhaps. But there’s another possibility.”
Suddenly the Voracious shook violently, as lights throughout the bridge flickered.
“That buggering bird has gotten into my engines.” Deidre jogged toward the aft hatch and snatched a disruptor pistol off the wall. “Speers, you’ve got conn. Marrazz, Besket, let’s go bird-hunting.”
Ford had started to nod off in the command chair, when a bleep sounded at Lt. Gellar’s panel. He stirred, glancing around. “Who blew what up?”
“What?” Gellar asked.
“What blew up?”
“What are you talking about?”
Ford rubbed his eyes. “I was just, uh, dreaming that something blew up.”
“I’m sure your subconscious has a lot of material to work with,” Gellar smirked. “But we’re all fine.” He glanced at his panel. “At least until Captain Conway gets here.”
Ford shot out of the command chair. “What do you mean?”
“We just got a message from him. He’s on his way to rendez-vous with us, and doesn’t want us to do anything else to screw up in the meantime.”
“He cut his honeymoon short?” Ford asked, rubbing his chin. “That’s a shame.”
“He must have taken the news about Larkin badly.”
“We’re working on it!” Ford protested.
“I think Captain Conway will be working on it now,” Gellar said. He glanced again at his panel. “And in about five minutes.”
“Damn, he’s pushing the runabout to the brink,” Ford said.
“I’d think that’s the least of our worries.”
Ford nodded, and raced to helm, then to ops, then back to the aft stations. “Should I be doing something? Do I write a report? Give another log? Come up with statistics?” He raced to tactical and grabbed Gellar by the front of his tunic. “What do I do, man? What do I do?”
Gellar pulled away from Ford and glanced back at his panel. “According to his instructions, get him a large black Arabian Java with extra sugar.”
“She’s barricaded herself in there,” Chief Mechanic Justan said, pushing up the shirtsleeves of his one-piece black jumpsuit. “Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. Big old penguin came flying down the hall at me, then…BLAM! Knocked me right over. What the hells was that?”
“A very angry avian,” Limpet said, studying his tricorder readings. He’d caught up to Deidre and the others en route to the engine room.
“What do we do now?” Deidre asked. “What if she’s trying to blow us up?”
“Not possible,” Justan said, his Yridian features crinkling as he thought. “The warp core is computer-controlled, and the computer systems are locked out. So’s the helm; so she can’t change our course.”
“So what can she do?”
CLANG. SLAM! TRUNDLE-TRUNDLE. BLARK!
“Beat the living galaxies out of the engines,” Justan said, his shoulders falling. Then, suddenly, the once-dim lights came up full, and the engines seemed to hum differently. “Guess she could also rip out the cloaking device.”
Deidre slapped a hand over her face. “Back to the bridge, people! Justan, keep trying to pry your way in there.”
“And if I can get in?”
“Put her on the endangered species list,” Deidre seethed, and marched off.
“I was gone for THREE DAYS!” Conway railed, tossing off his off- duty jacket and tossing it to a nearby ensign as he stepped out of the Kissimmee. “How could so much have gone wrong in three little days?”
“Coincidence?” Ford suggested weakly, picking up step next to Conway as he headed toward the exit, followed by Lanham and Hal Sholen.
“I left you in command for less than seventy-two hours, and you lost our first officer, got involved in an internal Cardassian matter that resulted in a hostage situation on Frigidia, sat idly by while Larkin was somehow used to steal massive quantities of latinum…”
“In his defense, sir, he wasn’t really idle,” Gellar said, and tossed Conway a uniform jacket, which he quickly shrugged on. “He actually twiddled his thumbs quite a bit. And he separated the ship, too!”
Conway glared at Ford. “What the hell did you do that for?”
“Coffee?” Ford offered, gingerly holding the large, steaming mug up for Conway’s inspection.
“Yes, it is,” he mumbled, and took the mug, swigging liberally from it. “Ahhh, that’s the stuff.” He glanced around. “So did anything blow up?”
“Only in my dreams, sir,” Ford said.
Ford pointed at Conway’s neck. “Hey, Captain, you’ve got a big probey-looking thing sticking out of the back of you neck!”
“Yeah,” Conway said. “I know. Shut up.”
The comm system suddenly chirped. “Saral to all senior staff. Please report to the bridge. The Voracious’ cloaking device has failed. We’ve detected her three parsecs away.”
“Now we’re talking,” Conway said. “Damn pirates. Guess we’d better get to the bridge.”
“What about me, Captain?” Sholen asked, bringing up the rear.
“You, too. I may end up violating a dozen or so Federation statutes today.”
“Excellent. I knew there was something I admired about you, sir.”
Ford nudged Conway. “Who’s the suit?”
“He’s my lawyer.”
“You have a lawyer?”
“May I ask why?”
“We’re visible!” Speers announced, as Deidre, Limpet, and Besket filed back onto the bridge.
“Smeg it!” Deidre snapped. “How the deuce did that happen?”
“Flippers of death,” Besket said, making small flapping motions with his hands.
“Hilarious,” Deidre said. “Do we still have engine control?”
“Yes,” Speers said. “Doesn’t seem like the penguin has destroyed them yet.”
“May I suggest we find a suitable hiding place nearby?” Limpet said.
“Put up a map of this sector,” Deidre said, propping her foot up on a nearby console and leaning forward. A schematic of the sector appeared on the viewscreen. “Magnify lower-right quadrant,” Deidre said, pointing. The map zoomed in to display a rough, brownish patch, with several blinking warning indicators. “What is that?”
Limpet checked his scans. “A very unstable pocket of space, filled with subspace eddies, gaseous anomalies, and ionic sensor interference. Galactic cartographers refer to it as the ‘Piney Narrows.’”
“You’ve got to love the fanciful names these cartographers come up with,” Deidre said wryly. “We don’t have any other options. Speers, take us there, best possible speed, for as long as our engines hold out.”
“And then what do we do when we get there?” Besket demanded. “Wait and hide like quavering vole?”
“No. We’ll wait and hide like quavering pirates,” Deidre said. “Let me know as soon as we arrive at the Narrows. I’m going back down to try and reason with our fine, un-feathered friend.”
“The Piney Narrows?” Conway asked, standing in the middle of the bridge with arms folded, staring at the churning brown mass on the screen.
Lanham ducked behind the science console, relieving Lt. Dawson (in more ways than one). “It is. It’s the worst confluence of spatial turbulence I’ve seen since Feathertree Way.”
“Oh, Hunter’s Knoll is much worse,” Ford said, stepping up next to Conway.
Conway glared at Ford. “Have a seat, Commander.”
Ford nodded. “Right. I’ll take the helm.”
“No,” Conway said, as Garrity stood. “I meant next to me. You got us this far in this mess, and you’ll help us get out. Plus, I don’t have a first officer at the moment, so you’re it. Enjoy.”
“Um, thanks for the vote of confidence,” Ford said, moving over to the command area as Garrity sat back down.
Nigel, who’d silently watched Conway march onto the bridge and start barking orders, stood up on shaky feet. “What are you going to do about getting my wife back, Captain Conway?”
Conway turned. “Who the hell is this ponce?”
“Nigel Hampstershire. Ambassador to Cardassia, Husband to Pirate,” Ford said succinctly.
Conway nodded. “You’ve got great taste in women, Ambassador.”
“Deidre must be stopped, Captain,” Nigel said earnestly. “I love her, but she’s tragically misguided. She may need therapy after all this, I’m afraid. Mother said so herself.”
“I’m thrilled that Mother weighed in on the topic,” Conway said. “And don’t worry. We’ll get your wife. She has our android right now, and we want her back. Mister Garrity,” Conway added, heading over to the ready room. “Lay in a course for the Pine Barrens or whatever. Let’s get our android back, folks.” He glared at Nigel. “And maybe, just maybe, get these two wacky kids back together.”
Lanham followed Conway into the readyroom, leaving Hal Sholen standing beside the science station, looking rather useless.
“So…” he said. “Anybody need a good lawyer?”
“My wife left me for a life of robbery, pillaging, and malfeasance,” Nigel said.
“Nice,” Sholen said, and stepped down to where Nigel was sitting. “Let’s talk.”
“Let’s talk,” Lanham said, standing on the other side of Conway’s desk, as the captain leaned forward, elbows on knees, and stared at the blank screen of his desktop panel.
<Why,> Conway thought. <When you know everything I’ve been thinking for the last sixteen hours?>
“Because talking is still what couples do,” Lanham said, and sat down opposite Conway. She reached out and took his hand. “And I expect we have a lot of it ahead of us. You were quiet for most of the runabout ride. You were thinking about something, or rather trying very hard not to think of something. By the way, thanks for the image of Captain Baxter in a hula skirt.”
“Sorry about that,” Conway said. “Anyway, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Moreover, I’m kind of busy hunting down a rogue who’s kidnapped my X.O. and dressed her as a penguin, using her for multiple counts of theft and larceny.”
“Hal’s right, you would make a good lawyer.”
“Shut up,” Conway said, leaning forward, resting his chin on his fists. “I’m trying to think.”
<I’m not stopping you,> Lanham thought.
“What is this Deidre person after?” Conway asked. “I don’t think it’s just latinum.”
“Then what? Pirates aren’t usually the type to work for radical social change.”
“She’s not a pirate. She’s a privateer. There’s a difference. Privateers work for a government.”
“Cardassia doesn’t have a government. At least, not a good one,” Lanham said.
“But maybe she wants to change all that.”
<Maybe she just wants to get on holo-vee.>
“What’s that?” Conway asked.
“Hmm?” Lanham asked. “Nothing. I was just musing.”
She shrugged. “Well, maybe she wants to make a name for herself.”
“A name,” Conway said. He tapped at his desktop panel, calling up the historical database and entering the name “Bain.” “She kept her name, instead of taking her husbands.”
“So did I,” Lanham pointed out.
“True enough. But what’s in a name?”
“Oh, please don’t try to get philosophical on me, sweetie,” Lanham said with a small smile.
As Conway read the desktop screen, he glanced at Lanham, and put his hand on hers. “Relax, Alexa. Everything’s going to turn out all right.”
“I know,” she said.
<When are we going to have kids?> she thought.
<I don’t want kids,> he thought.
And they just stared at each other.
Deidre sighed and leaned against the companel beside the door to the engine room. She punched a toggle. “Ahem. Commander Larkin. You are hereby requested and required to stand down.”
The racket in the engine room suddenly stopped.
“Wow, that was easy,” Deidre said. “Ya mean all I have to do is talk like one of your superior officers, and you’ll back off?”
“If your purpose is to deter me, you will not succeed,” Larkin’s voice replied over the comm.
“That so? Then how come you’ve stopped ripping apart my engines?”
“I have not stopped. I am just doing it quietly. There, I just smashed a polyphasic inducer.”
“We only have a few of those!” Deidre snapped, then wiped a hand over her face, marshalling her resources. “Look, I understand you don’t like being in captivity, but…”
“Is that a penguin joke?”
“No, I’m merely saying that I understand your plight. You’re frustrated, angry. I get that.”
“You realize that I’m programmed with emotions?”
“No, but I’ll take your word for it.” Deidre leaned against the panel. “Look, I know we got off on the wrong foot, but I think if you look at the reasons behind my actions, you’ll find them quite logical.”
“I am not a Vulcan.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Deidre muttered, turning back against the bulkhead and leaning back. “So I have to take a different tack, I’m afraid. Stand down, or I’ll have Limpet vent your compartment to space, and you with it.”
“I can survive indefinitely in space.”
“Not if we shoot you with our phasers after you’ve blown clear of the compartment.”
The next few moments were silent.
“I am agile,” Larkin finally said.
“So am I. But I’m also desperate. Desperate to complete this mission, desperate to win true freedom for Cardassia and give the decent people, the ones not blinded by political ambition, a real shot at rebuilding.”
“You are passionate.”
“I’m programmed that way,” Deidre said. “I’m a Bain. And that means something.”
“Accessing records,” Larkin said. “Roscoe Bain. Seventeenth century. Fur trapper and pioneer explorer in the Americas. Once got dragged down a mountain in the Adirondacks during a wild cougar attack. Fought off six bears and won. Caught them, killed them, skinned them bare, and lived off the meat for a month as he made his way through the valley.”
“That’s my boy,” Deidre said with a twitch of her nose.
“Constance Bain-Blythe. Twentieth century. Lead a revolt of underpaid female factory workers during World War Two. Got in a wrestling match with Winston Churchill at a public appearance. Nearly bested him until the guards pulled her off.”
“I’ve read them all, love. You needn’t rehash them for me,” Deidre said.
“Your family line is impressive.”
Deidre nodded. “And I intend to keep it that way.”
“Your methods leave much to be desired.”
“So did Roscoe and Contance, in their times. But they made their mark. As will I.”
“That remains to be seen.”
“You know what stuff I’m made of now, android. You know you cannot win. Stand down, so we can get on with our business and offload you.”
“I have tapped into your communication records. You intend to sell me to the Orions.”
“Poppycock. I intend to cheat the Orions.”
“Encouraging as that is, you have hardly given me reason to trust you. Even now, the Romulans approach, likely another potential buyer for my…goods.”
Deidre leaned up, her eyes going wide. “Romulans? What Romulans?”
“A Romulan freighter decloaking off the port bow.” Larkin paused a beat. “Why do you sound surprised?”
“Because I am. Stay put,” Deidre said, punching the comm closed.
“But we were having such a pleasant conversation,” Larkin said to the engine room door.
Before Deidre could even get to the bridge, she found Besket and Marrazz blocking the door to the companionway that led there. When they saw her, they lifted their rifles. Besket, in particular, took careful aim.
“Do not move, Deidre.”
Deidre teased a finger through her hair. “Did you organize a performance of the Pirates of Penzance without telling me? Because you’re all very convincing scoundrels.”
“We organized a performance, all right,” Besket said. “And your show’s leaving town.”
“Clever,” Deidre said, and punched a control on her wrist. “Deidre to Limpet. Please activate security fields and release the anesthezine gas. Besket betrayed me, just as I thought. And, sadly, he seems to have accomplices.”
Dedire smiled confidently, until she realized that Limpet hadn’t replied. She scowled. “If any of you hurt Limpet, I’ll personally filet and clean you!”
“I’m quite all right,” a voice said from behind Deidre.
She turned. “Limpet?”
He raised his disruptor. “The same. I wish I could go into a whole soliloquy on my reasons for betraying you, but we have a very tight negotiation schedule with the Romulans. They don’t want to stay in the Piney Narrows any longer than they have to, what with the gravitational eddies.”
The Voracious shook slightly, and Deidre knew they were descending into the Narrows.
“They always were gutless,” Deidre sneered. “Like some Cardassians I know.”
“Don’t weep over the lost of your lapdog,” Besket said from behind her. “You should know that we didn’t turn Limpet over to our way of thinking. Quite the opposite. He orchestrated the entire coup.”
“I’m a wonder,” Limpet grinned toothily.
“Pity you never really understood Cardassians,” Besket said. “Namely, that the least trustworthy of us are the ones who come to you under the guise of friendship.”
“Yes, the nasty ones are actually quite decent,” Limpet said, nodding at Besket.
“I’m getting that,” Deidre said slowly, not looking at Besket. Her eyes were still trained on Limpet, who waved at her with his rifle.
“Now then, if you’ll accompany me to the brig,” said Limpet. “You’ll see you have a lovely place to stay until we find a hospitable world to drop you on.”
“It figures that you don’t have the stomach for murder, Limpet.”
“Well, you did have Cardassia’s best interests at heart. And that counts for something. Unfortunately, latinum counts for more. Who knows, you may even survive on whatever planet we drop you on. You’re a resourceful creature.”
“Thanks,” Deidre said, and kicked her leg out behind her, in a sweeping motion, catching Besket across the jaw. Marrazz lifted his weapon, but Deidre grabbed it and twisted it away from him, slamming it in his gut.
She then charged at Limpet, swinging the rifle into the side of his head with a crack, and dashing down the corridor, leaving a pile of confused mutineers in her wake.
“Get her! Seal off the corridors if you have to!” Limpet cried, sagging against the bulkhead and cradling his massive cranium.
“Captain to the bridge,” Ford called out, pushing out of the command chair as Captain Conway bolted out of the readyroom.
“Thank the Great Bird!” Conway said, jogging to the center of the bridge. “What have we got?”
“The Piney Narrows. Dead ahead.”
Conway squinted at the brownish maelstrom on the screen as Lanham stepped out behind him, then walked up to the science station, relieving Lt. Dawson.
“We’re not finished, David,” she said softly.
“We are for now,” Conway said. “And if you were listening to my thoughts right now, you’d know that. Now somebody tell me, where’s the Voracious?”
“They already went in,” Ford said. “And something else. Gellar picked up a Romulan freighter entering the Narrows just a few minutes ago, right behind the Voracious.”
“I could have told him that,” Gellar said.
“Yes, but I beat you to it,” Ford said smarmily. “Orders, sir?”
“Normally, I’d say charge in after them,” Conway said. “But these aren’t normal circumstances. Something’s not right here.”
“Just one thing?” Ford asked.
“No, a few something’s.” Conway glanced around. “Where are my lawyer and that British guy?
“Where you always keep your lawyers and British guys. In the conference room. They’ve been talking for a while now. Almost as long as you and Doctor Lanham.” Ford leaned toward Conway. “We can chat, if you need to…”
“What I need you to do is take the helm,” Conway said, and headed to the command chair.
“But I thought you said you needed a first officer?”
“You can give idiot advice from any chair on the bridge. And I need a good helmsman right now.”
“Gee, thanks,” Ensign Garrity said dejectedly, shuffling out of the helm seat.
“Oh, now, don’t be that way,” Conway said. “Go belowdecks and get yourself a mocha chiller, on me.”
“Yes, sir,” Garrity said, and stepped into the turbolift as Ford sat down at helm.
“And stop being such a whiner!” Conway snapped just as the doors closed. He glanced back at Alexa Lanham, who was glaring at him. “What? I can only be nice for so long.”
“You know he always wanted to be a pianist,” Ford said, glancing back at Conway.
“I don’t give a crap,” Conway said. “Now reduce our speed to half impulse. I want you to take us around the Narrows in an elliptical pattern, sensors at maximum. I want to know the second the Voracious leaves, and I want to be right on their ass.”
“You demoted me from first officer just so I could drive in circles?”
Conway shrugged. “I’m arbitrary that way. Now circle like you’ve never circled before!”
“I hate you, Captain,” Ford said, and tapped at his console.
“Join the club,” Conway muttered.
Deidre ran to the engineering hatch and punched the control. “Larkin! It’s Deidre again!”
“Greetings. How are you?”
“Smashing. Lovely day, isn’t it?”
“Can you let me in?”
There was a pause. “Are you having some sort of problem?”
“Ah, so that is what I saw on the flight recorder.”
“Yes! All my men turned against me, including my favorite one!”
“When you lead without a moral compass, the result is often that you get lost.”
“Would you shut up and let me in!”
“Not if you are going to take that attitude.”
Deidre heard the clunking of bootsteps coming down the ladder to the engine section and she knew her time was short. “Please?” she begged.
“I do not believe you are in position to negotiate.”
“Once my people get past me, they’ll get to you, and sell you to the highest bidder. Even if they have to shoot you to do so.”
The door slid open, so suddenly that Deidre nearly fell into the engine room.
“You make a compelling point,” Larkin said, as Deidre struggled to her feet. The android meanwhile tapped the control, once again sealing the engine room.
Deidre looked around. Smashed panels, busted conduits, sparking EPS nodes. “You really did trash the place.”
“And yet your ship keeps on moving. The Klingons really know how to design a quality starship.”
“That they do,” Deidre said, as she heard thumping at the door.
“Captain Bain,” Limpet’s voice said sweetly over the comm. “We do so miss you. How about you come out and let us give you an old fashioned pirate’s sendoff? You can walk the plank and everything! Wouldn’t that be retro of us?”
“Bugger the whole lot of you!” Deidre shouted back. “I should’ve keelhauled you when I had the chance.”
“Do you even know what ‘keelhaul’ means?” Larkin asked quizzically.
“No, but it sounds good,” Deidre said. “So, you’ve got any ideas on how we get out of here?”
“I was hoping you would assist in that regard.”
“Oh,” Deidre said. “I suppose you think I know all sorts of secret hatches on the ship.”
“It was my fervent hope.”
“Well, I don’t. But I might be able to go you one better…”
The door to the engine room slid open suddenly, and quite surprisingly, to Limpet. He thought Deidre would put up a much bigger fight.
When he and Besket stepped into the engine room, they found themselves face to face with a giant penguin.
Besket raised his disruptor. “Do not move, peng…I mean android!”
Limpet raised his wrist communicator to his mouth. “Marrazz. Are you back on the bridge?”
“Begin scans. The android is here but we cannot find Deidre.”
“So do you think you’re clever?” Besket asked, walking up to the penguin and shoving his disruptor under its beak. “Do you think you’ve fooled us?”
“Do you hear a high-pitched whine?” Limpet asked, stepping up behind Besket.
“Yes. It sounds quite like a disrupt…” The Cardassians exchanged glances, then bolted for the door.
The penguin exploded in a shower of stuffing, and what was left of the engine room was engulfed in flames.
“Justan, report to the engine room immediately!” Limpet growled, crawling to a nearby bulkhead and pulling himself up, as Besket lay in a dazed heap. “And search the ship. Find Deidre Bain!”
“I can’t believe the android just blew herself up,” Besket said.
“It was just the costume, you fool. The people reading this figured that out before you did!”
“Nice work,” Deidre smirked as she and Larkin squirmed through a Jeff’waH tube, what the Klingons laughingly called a maintenance duct.
“It was a fairly obvious ruse.”
“Well, we have some pretty daft opponents.”
“I believe a mercenary is only as good as the person who hires him.”
Deidre wrinkled her nose. “Cheeky android, were you just making fun of me?”
“I was merely making an observation.”
“No you weren’t. You were razzing me, and I love you for it. You’re a right evil thing, aren’t you?”
“I am just a regular android having a very bad day,” Larkin replied.
“You aren’t the only one.”
Larkin looked ahead down the dim and narrow tube. “Do you know where we are going?”
“We’re almost to the aft escape pod,” Deidre said.
“Are escape pods not somewhat antithetical to Klingon beliefs?”
“I suppose. They’re hard to get to, but we do have them. And aren’t you glad we do?”
“Because I cannot currently deactivate my emotions, yes I am glad.”
“That’s the spirit. Now let’s get to the escape pods before they realize they can flood these tubes with radiation and kill us. Well, kill me, anyway.”
“They’ve got to be in the Jeff’waH tubes,” Justan said, hands on hips, surveying the ruined engine room. “There’s mild radiation in the tubes in this section, because of the proximity to the engines. They’re shielded from our sensors.”
“Any way we can track them?” Limpet asked, as he and Besket leaned against the bulkhead, nursing their injuries from the explosion.
“Shut down the engines and wait for the radiation to subside. But it’ll take at least six hours for that to happen.”
“We need another option,” Besket said.
Limpet nodded. “We triple the radiation output. Evacuate this deck and flood those tubes with the nastiest radiation we have. The android may survive, but Deidre at least will be dead.”
“I knew there was a reason you were the nice one,” Besket said with a grin.
“Marrazz to Limpet.”
“Sir, we just launched an escape pod. Two life forms aboard. One human, one mechanical.”
“Klingon ships have escape pods?” Besket asked.
“APPARENTLY!” Limpet snarled. “Destroy it!”
“We can’t right now. The Narrows is clouding our sensors and weapons tracking system. We can’t see more than ten meters in front of us.”
“BLIMEY!” Limpet growled, and pounded his fist into the bulkhead. “The Romulans will be here in a few minutes, anyway. It’s important we don’t move from the agreed position, or they’ll never find us.”
“What about Deidre and the android?” Besket asked, as he and Limpet headed out of the engine room.
“If our negotiations are successful, they’ll be quite irrelevant.”
“Contact bearing oh four seven mark one seven two,” Gellar called out.
Conway pivoted his command chair toward the viewscreen. “Shields up. Arm weapons.”
“It’s not the Voracious.”
“The Romulans?” Ford asked, looking up from the helm.
Gellar shook his head. “Strike two. It’s way smaller than either of those. It looks like an escape pod of some kind. Klingon in design.”
“Klingons have escape pods?” Conway asked.
“Maybe they just design them,” Ford suggested.
“Smartass,” Conway said. “Can we tell who’s on board?”
“One human…one android.”
Conway’s eyes widened in excitement. “Lock onto the pod and beam it into cargo bay one, now!”
“You’re going to need some security down there,” Gellar said, as he tapped controls, activating the transporter.
“Then come with me.”
“Gellar to Puckett. I want you and D’Angelo at the cargo bay double-quick,” Gellar said, standing up from his console and heading to the aft turbolift with Conway.
Ford stood up from the helm. “What about me?”
“You have the bridge,” Conway said. “Just don’t get too comfy in my f****ing chair this time.”
“Vicious, deadly, and cruel. I love it!” Besket exclaimed as he looked at the schematics on the Romulans’ padd, in the war room off the main bridge..
“It’s kind of bulky,” Limpet said. “It ruins the line of our hull.”
The two Romulans, Prevacik and Nexial, exchanged glances with one another, then one of them reached out and snatched the padd back. “It wasn’t designed to be pretty. It has a very specific function, and I assure you it carries it out splendidly.”
“Why are you getting rid of it so cheap?”
The Romulans again exchanged glances. “It’s a sale,” Nexial said.
“A going out of office sale,” Prevacik said.
“A coup de savings!” Nexial said with an elegant flick of his wrist.
“A celebration of governmental restabilizing,” Prevacik said.
“You guys need a better PR department,” Limpet said, shaking his head. The Romulans stared at him quizzically. “Or, *a* PR department.”
“Tempting,” Besket said. “But so is the thought of keeping all that latinum for ourselves.”
“Yes,” Limpet said. “You have to understand, as pirates, we value our latinum. Even at a bargain price, we must consider all our options.”
“If you don’t find the device satisfactory, I am sure we can find other buyers,” Nexial said.
“Yes. I just heard the Andorian Crown Prince was dabbling in genocide,” Prevacik said. He nodded. “Perhaps we should take our business elsewhere.”
“No!” Limpet said, holding up his hand eagerly. “We’re very interested. We’ll take it.”
“We’ll need half the latinum up front,” Nexial said.
“And the other half after your thirty-day trial,” Prevacik said.
“Agreed,” Limpet said, and reached out a hand to shake each of the Romulan’s hands. As they shook hands, he grinned. “Now can we talk about mounting?”
“A strange way to consummate a sale, but if you insist…” said Nexial.
“Mounting the weapon…on our ship…” Besket said.
“Oh. Yes. That’s what we thought you meant.”
“What about firing while cloaked?” Limpet asked. “Can we deploy the thing without becoming visible?”
“Oh, yes,” Prevacik said. “The device is compatible with your cloaking system.”
“And need we remind you, the device will leave any latinum stores at your target site intact, while killing all biological life.”
“No, not at all. That’s what really sold us on your little contraption.” Limpet smiled. Suckers! They were getting a valuable weapon on the cheap, and the Romulans didn’t even realize they were being had. Good thing nobody could read his mind.
“So now she can read my mind,” Conway said, walking with Larkin to the bridge as D’Angelo and Puckett gripped Deidre Bain, each by an arm. “It’s a real pain in the ass. My honeymoon was ruined. And all I have to show for it is this thingie sticking out of the back of my neck.”
Larkin nodded. “My vacation, too, was ruined. And I, too, have a ‘thingie’ in my neck.” She turned, pulling her hair away to reveal Limpet’s device.
“Ouch,” Conway said. “That’s a coincidence, isn’t it? Well, at least you can’t feel pain.”
“That is not altogether true. My emotion program is experiencing a temporary loss of…”
“That’s fantastic,” Conway said, clapping his hands together. “Well, now, we’ve got a posse again. Let’s wrangle that Klingon scrap heap and call it a day. You up for it, Gellar?”
“Absolutely, Captain,” Gellar said, giving a second glance at Deidre. Her pants were really tight.
“It’ll be harder than you think, bloke!” Deidre called from behind Conway.
He turned. “And what makes you say that?”
“My people are skilled, and have malicious intent. Do not trust them for a moment.”
Conway chuckled. “Yeah, I guess you can speak from experience. Take her to the brig, guys.”
“But you may require my services!” Deidre called out.
“Yeah, we’ll call you if we need you to narrate one of the ‘Harry Potter’ books. Bye now!” Conway waved, as he, Gellar, and Larkin stepped into a waiting turbolift.
“Excellent news!” Hal Sholen announced, stepping out of the conference room at the rear of the bridge, with Nigel behind him.
Ford, seated in the command chair, turned and glanced sidelong at Sholen. “You’re still here?”
Sholen clapped Nigel on the shoulder. The ambassador immediately winced. “After some preliminary negotiations, I’m confident that we can get Nigel Hampstershire a complete divorce settlement, up to and including possession of the Privateer ship Voracious.”
Ford glanced back at the roiling brown Piney Narrows on the viewscreen. “You mean the ship we’re chasing now, that’s cavorting around in that spacial…confluency thing?”
“Precisely,” Sholen said. “I’m getting back what’s been Sholen from him.”
“I never owned the ship,” Nigel said.
“Yes!” Sholen said, clapping Nigel in the back. “But you owned so much more. Your pride, your image. How will it play with the other ambassadors, when they discover that your wife has gone off on a junket of piracy between Federation and Cardassian space?”
“Not well,” Nigel said, looking down.
“And you deserve to be compensated for that, which means we’ll have an opportunity to seize all of Deidre’s assets, including the Voracious.”
“I’d love to seize her assets,” Ford mused, then shook his head. “Look, you two should really be belowdecks…”
Just then, Conway, Gellar, and Larkin spilled out of the aft tubrolift.
“Any news?” Conway asked.
“Nothing, except that, apparently, if you have a comm system, you have a lawyer,” Ford said, thumbing back at Sholen.
Conway stared at Sholen and Nigel. “Fellas, I’m going to have to ask you to get belowdecks. It’s going to get bumpy around here.”
“And why is that?” Nigel asked, stepping up to Conway, screwing up his courage.
Conway stared blankly at him. “Because I’m taking the Aerostar into the Piney Narrows. Now that we have our android back, we’re unstoppable. We’ll get your wife back, and probably turn a tidy profit in the process.”
“We can’t keep that latinum, David,” Lanham said.
“Oh, did I say that last part out loud?” Conway asked innocently. “It’s getting so hard to tell, nowadays. Anyway, both of you, get moving. Have a drink in the Starlight Lounge, or something. I imagine both of you would be a lot more fun with a stiff drink in you.”
Sholen nodded, draping his hands behind his back. “Very well. Nigel, if you’ll come with me, I believe we have more to discuss.”
“Did you get Deidre?” Nigel asked, following Sholen into the turbolift.
“She’s in our brig,” Conway said, moving down to the command chair, followed by Larkin, as Ford stood up and headed back to the helm and Gellar took tactical.
“Can I see her?”
Conway shrugged. “I guess. But somehow I doubt she’ll be in the mood for make-up sex.”
“Why, I…” Nigel began, as Sholen gently prodded him into the turbolift.
“Thank you for your hospitality, Captain!” Sholen said with a grin. “You won’t be regretting this.”
“Why do we have a lawyer?” Larkin asked as she sat down beside Conway.
“Don’t worry about it,” Conway said.
“If you want some ham so badly, just get some from the replicator!” Lanham snapped, blowing out an exasperated breath.
“It was just a passing thought!” Conway growled, gritting his teeth. “And we have work to do. I can have ham later.”
“Better stock up,” Ford said. “Because I doubt you’ll be getting any pork tonight.”
“Since when did this become showtime at the Improv?” Conway muttered, glancing around. He leaned forward, gesturing at the viewscreen with dramatic flair. “Secure to Yellow Alert, people, and look alive. We’re headed into the Narrows.”
“Coming about,” Ford said. “All ahead, full…”
Just then, a blurry, dark shape formed below the bubbling brown disturbance field on the screen, coalescing into the shape of an oblong, green-black ship.
“New contact on sensors,” Saral announced. “Bearing zero one seven mark one one four.”
“Confirmed,” Gellar said. “It’s the Romulan freighter we spotted earlier.”
“Hail them,” Conway said. “Tell them to stand down and come to. They’re mixed up in this and I want to know how.”
“They just went to warp,” Gellar said. “Apparently, your hail wasn’t well-received.”
Ford turned in his chair. “Do we chase them? We have no way of knowing when the Voracious will come out of the Narrows.”
“How about right now?” Gellar asked, looking at his panel.
“Bearing one two one mark zero seven five,” Saral announced.
“On screen,” Conway said, and stood. He stepped forward as the Bird of Prey came soaring out of the Piney Narrows, then shot into warp, disappearing as she went. Conway’s eyes widened. “Full about. Plot a pursuit course and engage at maximum warp!”
Ford nodded. “Aye, captain. Pursuit course.”
Conway shook his head as he walked back to the command chair and sat down next to Larkin. “Did you see what I saw, Commander?”
“Yes. And my emotion program is now uploading a feeling best described as ‘gravely disturbed.’”
“Well, glad that’s working,” Conway said. “Gellar, any idea where the Voracious is headed?”
Gellar nodded. “Just before she cloaked, she was headed for Bajoran space, sir.”
Conway clapped his hands on the arms of the command chair. “All right, then. We’ve got a new problem. Time for a staff meeting!”
“Can we make thisssssssssssss quick? I was jusssssssssst in the middle of a…project,” Dr. Benzra said, sitting down next to a very alarmed-looking Nigel Hampstershire, and folding her claws in front of her. “I wisssssh you’d ceasssssse interrupting me.”
“We’ll be quick,” Conway said from the head of the table.
“Does s-she really have to sit next to me?” Nigel asked, tugging at his collar.
“Sssssshow a bit of musssstard, human,” Benzra said. She then stared at Nigel a moment, her compound eyes oscillating. “Actually, you’d be better with ssssssome brown gravy.”
“Please get on with this,” Nigel said, folding his shaking hands.
“Larkin, the floor is yours,” Conway said, gesturing at the front of the room.
Larkin stood beside the small conference room viewscreen, and pushed a control, activating it. A schematic of a Klingon Bird of Prey appeared, presumably the Voracious.
“We know what the ship looks like, Larkin,” Ford said.
Larkin narrowed her eyes at Ford. “Lieutenant Commander Ford, I would like to thank you again for swiftly rescuing me.”
“I…that is….oh. Sarascm.”
“Yes.” The android pointed at the schematic, which rotated to reveal a large, cannon-shape device mounted on top of it. “It appears that, during their rendez-vous, the Romulan freighter outfitted the Voracious with a new weapon. For those of you not familiar with the technology, this is a thaleron radiation weapon.”
At the other end of the table, Kamtezen stirred, sending up a powdery puff. “But the only known thaleron weapon was destroyed when the Romulans tried to attack Earth a few years ago!”
“Yes,” Larkin said, and wiped her eye a little. “Lieutenant Commander Data made the ultimate sacrifice to save us all.”
“Oh, you androids are always sacrificing yourselves to save us,” Conway said. “Keep going!”
Larkin glared at him. “I am sorry. I am just having difficulty with my emotions. At any rate, thaleron weaponry is incredibly hazardous and absolutely lethal.”
“At least now we know what they spent all that latinum on,” Gellar said.
“Indeed,” Larkin said. “And as we all know, I am partially responsible for that.”
“Partially?” Ford asked.
Larkin fixed a steely gaze on Ford. “To RESUME…Lieutenant Kamtezen is correct. The thaleron weapon employed by then-Praetor Shinzon was destroyed, and was the only known prototype. This weapon…” The image of the bird of prey zoomed in on the cannon mounted on top of it. “Is considerably smaller, and incapable of destroying an entire planet in one blow like its predecessor.”
“That’s a relief,” Conway said.
“It is called the Thaleron Junior.”
Ford burst into laughter, pounding the conference table.
“This is not funny,” Larkin said. “This weapon is still capable of widespread destruction and could result in a massive loss of life.”
“Let’s hope they don’t also have the travel size!” Ford chuckled.
“Be silent, or so help me, I will crush your trachea,” Larkin said stormily, then cocked her head. “My apologies. Again, my emotion program is experiencing some difficulties.”
“N-no problem,” Ford said, sinking in his seat.
“So…widespread destruction?” Lanham asked.
“We must act quickly to intercept the Voracious before she reaches the Bajoran system and destroy the Thaleron Junior, and/or the Bird of Prey itself,” Larkin said.
“Sounds easy,” Conway said.
“Except the Voracious cloaked again,” Gellar said.
“How convenient,” Conway said. “Are we working on any ways of detecting her?”
Kamtezen nodded. “Gellar and I have some ideas.”
“Well get to it,” Conway said. “We know the general direction they’re going.”
“Unless they change course and head to Earth,” Lanham said.
“Well isn’t that a cheery thought,” Conway muttered. “Well, better contact Starfleet Command, just in case. Meantime, Gellar and Kamtezen, you guys find that ship. Dismissed, people.”
Everyone got up and made their way to the door.
Conway stood, then, and waved a hand at them. “Wait. Hold up, everybody.”
The officers turned and looked at him.
“I don’t have to tell you the stakes involved here. The Thaleron Junior is a fearsome weapon, and it must be stopped at all costs. So…”
“Of course, Captain,” Larkin said. “We will nobly sacrifice ourselves to stop the weapon from firing, if we have to.”
Conway blinked. “What? No, you idiot. I was going to tell you, don’t do anything stupid like sacrifice yourself to stop the weapon from firing. It’s just Bajor. Jeeze.” And he shouldered his way past the crowd and back onto the bridge.
“Keep away, girls. He’s mine,” Lanham muttered, and followed him.
Ford turned to leave, but Kamtezen gently gripped his shoulder. He turned as the others filed out and the doors closed, leaving him alone with the other two officers. “What?”
Kamtezen and Gellar stared at Ford, with weak grins.
“Buddy,” Gellar said. “Kamtezen and I were talking, and we both feel…”
“Instinctually,” Kamtezen said.
“Yes. We instinctually feel that you could be of great help in detecting the Voracious before she reaches Bajor.”
“Really?” Ford asked. “I failed tactical class like three times.”
“You won’t need tactical class for this,” Gellar said. “You’ll just need your charm.”
“Now you’re talking!” Ford cocked his head. “Wait, who do you want me to charm?”
Kamtezen and Gellar smiled wider.
“Thirty-six battles of ale on the wall, thirty-six battles of ale! Take one down and pass it around; thirty-five bottles of ale on the wall…” Deidre Bain sang idly, her hands clasped behind her head as she stared up at the ceiling of her brig enclosure.
She then heard the doors hiss open, and turned her head. “Hello?”
Lt. Commander Ford stepped in, spoke briefly to Lt. Puckett. She slapped him in the face, then walked out.
“Excellent,” Ford said, then approached the forcefield of Deidre’s brig. “Deidre Bain! How nice to see you.”
“Can I help you?”
“No, but I think I can help you,” Ford said with a grin.
Deidre leaned up. “Wait a tic. You’re the bloke from the broadcast message in the Ferenginar system. The one with the bad hair.”
Ford reached up and smoothed his hair. “Well, when you shave your head, it doesn’t always grow back right. For years…”
“Aren’t you the skipper of this boat?”
Ford shook his head. “Helmsman, actually. But same difference. Anyway, that’s not what I came to talk to you about.”
“I want to make you an offer.”
“Let me guess; turn my mates over to you, then get immunity from prosecution in the kangaroo courts you call a J.A.G. system.”
“Um, no. You’re definitely going to be prosecuted. And, if I’m guessing right, spend a fair amount of time in a penal colony. I hope you like pruning.”
“I come from a long line of gardeners. Unlike my ponce of a husband, who couldn’t trim a weed.”
“Yeah, what’s with that guy?”
“I can’t begin to tell you,” Deidre said. “But it all starts with mommy issues.”
Ford nodded. “I know how that is. I see my mom once every two years, and boy, is that not a fun day.”
“This is all fascinating, but I’ve got a long night of staring at the ceiling ahead of me,” Deidre said, turning back toward her bunk.
“I can offer you something better than your freedom, though.”
Deidre stopped. “What is that?”
“Well, if we’re successful in seizing the Voracious, we’ll have a lot of latinum on our hands.”
Deidre turned. “That latinum belongs in Cardassian hands.”
“And we can make sure it gets there. And make sure all of Cardassia knows it was Deidre Bain, and her swashbuckling, that got it for them.”
“Rather than the Federation taking credit?” Deidre asked.
“Oh, they’ll make a big show of it. But I can leak the news of your involvement to the right sources. I once dated a girl who works for Associated Worlds Network.”
“Tempting offer,” Deidre said, biting her lip. “But then it would feel an awful lot like I’m helping you.”
“Yes,” Ford said. “Good point. Wouldn’t want to do that.”
“Nice try, though, friend. Have a smashing day.” And Deidre slumped back onto her bunk, drawing her legs up.
Ford turned, and walked back toward her forcefield. “Of course, if you helped us intercept your old ship, I can’t help but think it would greatly inconvenience your old crew. I can understand how you’d want to be loyal to them. After all, they were so loyal to you.”
Deidre leaned up, and paced her cell like a caged animal. “They were a loving bunch, weren’t they.”
“So you’ve got to ask yourself…who would you rather screw?” Ford grinned. “Other than me?”
“You’re quite the biscuit, aren’t you, Mister Ford?” Deidre asked. “I can only imagine how many women aboard ship succumb to your pleasures.”
“Oh, it’s a fair number,” Ford said. “At least…three.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t lose count.” Deidre drew a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll help you. But you’ve got to promise me something in return.”
“What?” Conway asked, looking up from the terminal on his desk, as Ford stood in front of him, a cheesey grin still plastered on his face. “Out of the question. She’s not getting out of that brig.”
“We’d have secruity with us. We can even put her in binders.” Ford bit his lip. “Tight ones.”
“Security will have its hands full trying to disable the Thaleron Junior,” Conway said. “Providing we actually succeed in crippling the Voracious and getting aboard.”
“But she knows that ship like the back of her hand! Suppose we get there and we don’t know how to work the doors?”
“We barely know how to work the doors on this ship,” Conway mused.
“Exactly my point! We need all the help we can get.”
Conway rubbed his chin. “Do you know how annoying it is to have somebody reading your thoughts non-stop? Not to mention, your wife?”
“I feel for you, sir,” Ford said, rather insincerely.
“Yeah. Well, Benzra said there wouldn’t be time to remove the damn implant until the current crisis is over. Can’t even disable it without some invasive cranial surgery.”
“Sounds like fun,” Ford said. “So you’ll let Deidre join the away team?”
Conway nodded. “Yeah. But she’ll have to have someone looking after her. Someone whose ass is on the line. Somebody who I can crush like a plump mocha bean, should she escape.”
“I’ll break the news to Gellar.”
“I was talking about you, Ford.”
“Oh. Naturally.” Ford backed toward the door. “Well, I’ll just tell Deidre. She’ll be so happy.”
“I hear thaleron radiation hurts like a bitch, Ford. Better bring some sunscreen!”
“Thank you, Captain!” Ford called as he ducked out of the readyroom.
Conway shook his head. “Better him than me.”
“Saral to Conway,” the comm system suddenly chirped. “Sir, I have General Kira on subspace.”
“Speaking of difficult women,” Conway muttered. “Put it on my viewer.”
The fiery redhead appeared on his desktop screen, her blue eyes radiating hatred. Conway never understood why Nerys disliked him so much, but supposed it had something to do with throwing scalding hot coffee in her face. “Captain Conway. So good to hear from you again. What do you want?”
“To give you fair warning. A Cardassian privateer ship, a Klingon Bird of Prey, is headed toward Bajor, intent on killing as many Bajorans as possible.”
“I thought the Privateers took from the rich and gave to the poor, or something,” Kira said.
“Not these Privateers. They’re a nasty bunch. I recommend you do that thing where you tell everyone to get off the station. Just don’t send them to Bajor. Because, obviously, that’s the planet that’s being targeted.”
“Evacuate again?” Kira asked, annoyed. She looked away, a moment, composing herself, then looked back at Conway. “Is there any way I can blame you for this?”
“Nope. I was on my honeymoon at the time.”
“Well, the honeymoon’s over, Conway. You’d better stop that ship,” Kira seethed. “DS-Nine out!”
“You’re welcome!” Conway muttered.
“Isn’t a privateer a pirate that’s hired by a government?” Sholen asked Nigel as they walked toward the brig.
Nigel nodded. “I tried to explain that to Deidre, but she wouldn’t hear of it. The Cardassian Privateer movement was founded on the basis of forming a new Cardassian government, or somesuch, and they felt like the Privateers were in the employ of that new government. Plus, they like the name better than ‘pirate.’”
“It is…catchy,” Sholen said, as Nigel punched a control, and was admitted to the brig.
“Visiting hours are over,” Lt. Puckett said. “We’re at, like, Red Alert, or something.”
“Actually, it’s still just Yellow Alert,” Sholen said. “And my client has a right to speak with his wife. You can clear this through Captain Conway.”
Puckett shrugged, and sat down behind her console, putting her feet up. “I really don’t care. Chat with her, if you want. Have fun. No kinky stuff, though.”
Sholen bowed slightly. “Wouldn’t dream of it, Lieutenant.”
“Deidre?” Nigel asked, jogging over to the cell where Deidre sat, reclined on her bunk, staring, still, at the ceiling.
She glanced at him. “Oh. Hello, Nigel.”
“Dearest, I’ve missed you!” Nigel said, approaching the forcefield.
Sholen stepped up next to Nigel. “Hal R. Sholen, Attorney at Law, at your service.”
“I thought all the lawyers were dead,” Deidre mused.
“This one isn’t,” Nigel said. “And he’s been telling me some terrible things about dissolving our marriage. I assured him, though, that it wouldn’t be necessary.”
Deidre pursed her lips. “Isn’t it dissolved already, love?”
Nigel shifted from foot to foot. “Well…not…officially.”
She waved a hand at him. “Very well, then. See about getting it waived, or revoked, or whatnot. That would be good.”
“But Deidre…wouldn’t you like another go at it? Once you get out of the rehab colony, of course?”
“Nigel,” Deidre said, blowing out a tired breath. She stood and walked up to the forcefield. “I love you, dearest. But you’re a big fat ponce, and we really don’t belong together.”
“Let this nice man undo our marriage, so that both of us can get on with our lives.”
Sholen withdrew a padd from the case at his side, and showed it to Deidre. “As you can see, I’ve already drawn up the paperwork. It merely needs your thumbprint.”
“Perhaps once I get free of this damned place,” Deidre said. “Then, I’ll gladly oblige.”
“That’s that, then,” Sholen said, looking to Nigel. “I believe we’re finished here?”
Nigel’s lip quivered. “B…but…”
“Oh, don’t be a froog, Nigel,” Deidre sighed.
Larkin saw Kamtezen jog by, toward the stellar cartography lab where he and Gellar were presumably working on a way to track the Voracious.
“Lieutenant,” Larkin nodded, prompting the Bewhal to stop in his tracks and whirl around.
“Kristen! Good to see you,” he said, folding his arms over his chest.
“You must be feeling a great deal of stress,” Larkin observed, clasping her hands behind her back.
“What? Oh, this. Yes. Just a few piles here and there,” Kamtezen shifted awkwardly. “Are you, um, is everything okay? I mean, from your kidnapping?”
“I am functioning within normal parameters,” Larkin said. “There is no need to worry. Focus on locating the Voracious.”
“I know having that thing stuck in your neck must be a nuisance. As soon as this mission’s over, we’ll extract it for you.”
“I have no doubt you will,” Larkin said. “Now I believe you have work…”
“Yeah. Well, it was nice seeing you again,” Kamtezen said, backing away.
“Nice seeing you as well, Lieutenant,” Larkin replied, turning to walk the other way, registering the “awkwardness” protocol that just fired off within her positronic brain.
“Talk to you later!” Kamtezen called over his shoulder.
“Yes. Later. Good.” And Larkin resumed her previous course, to the brig.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Dr. Lanham said softly as Conway paced the Aerostar bridge, glancing at times at the viewscreen.
“Very damn funny,” Conway said. “You know exactly what I’m thinking.”
“You don’t think we’ll stop the Voracious in time.”
“I’m not optimistic.”
“What a surprise.”
Conway stopped and looked at Lanham. “Do you have a problem?”
<We have to talk,> she thought.
Conway gritted his teeth. <Could this wait until after the life and death stuff is over?>
<We have nothing better to do until we get to the Bajor system.>
“Sir, can you authorize this equipment transfer?” Ensign Skyler asked, stepping up to Conway.
“It’s the kid thing, isn’t it,” Conway said as he thumbed the padd.
“I don’t know what kid thing you’re talking about,” Skyler said. “But this is for verteron generators to be moved from stellar cartography to astrophysics.”
“Whatever,” Conway said, and handed the padd back to Skyler. He walked back to his command chair and sat down. <We’ll need to table this for later.>
<Either you want children or you don’t. If you don’t, then we have a big problem.>
<We’re not discussing this right now!> Conway thought, putting his hands on his ears.
<Putting your hands on your ears won’t help.>
<ARGHH!! Can you please get off my back?>
<If not now, when, David? Will you EVER want children?>
Conway worked his jaw back and forth, gripping the arms of his command chair.
<Just tell me, David. Please!>
“No!” Conway snapped, causing everyone on the bridge to look at him. He stood up and walked to the science console. “No, I don’t want children! They’re noisy. Their noses run. They complain about everything. They can’t hold down a job! They just get in the way! I’ve got a dog and that’s more than enough!”
“Thanks for sharing, Captain,” Ford said from the helm, as Gellar and Kamtezen stepped out of the aft turbolift.
“David, I never…I guess I should have guessed, but…” Lanham said.
“Great news!” Gellar announced, moving behind his console, opposite Lanham’s. “We’ve isolated the neutrino emissions of the Voracious!”
Kamtezen nodded, stepping up behind Gellar. “Thanks to Ford’s interrogation work, we were able to pinpoint the exact atomic drift of the emissions. Now we just have to close in and train our weapons on it.”
Gellar nodded, tapping at his controls. “One one four, mark one two five. Dead ahead, ninety million kilometers.”
“Fascinating,” Lanham said, looking at her panel. “Ingenious, really.”
Conway stared at Lanham. “Good work, Ford. Now change course to intercept. Gellar, go to Red Alert. Ready weapons and shields.” He took a breath. “Gellar, have Puckett and D’Angelo escort Deidre to transporter room two.”
“Acknowledged,” Gellar said. “Gellar to Puckett…”
Conway clenched his fists. “Let’s blast this bird out of the sky.”
“I suppose you came here to gloat,” Deidre muttered, not looking up as Larkin approached her.
“Not at all,” Larkin said. “I spoke with Lieutenant Commander Ford, and discovered that you have agreed to help us.”
“Are you shocked?”
“Mildly. But my emotion program can be blamed for that. My shock is irrelevant, however. What is relevant is your cooperation.”
“I told Ford that I’d help you blighters out, and I meant it.”
“Yes. But based on the actions of your so-called ancestors…”
“You mean the ones I’m not related to?”
“Yes. Those. Based on their actions, I calculate a ninety-percent chance that you will try to escape us once we get on board the Bird of Prey, so you can re-take your ship and resume what you believe is a humanitarian mission.”
“And if I do?” Deidre said, locking eyes with Larkin.
“Then I will stop you, Captain Bain, with all due force,” Larkin said, and headed for the door. “Be ready to disembark within the hour.”
“Report,” Limpet said, sitting stiffly in Deidre’s command chair, watching the star chart on the viewscreen, which marked the position of the Voracious as it closed on the Bajor system, as well as the pursuing Aerostar-A.
Justan had just stepped onto the bridge, and was leaning over the engine status station. “I stabilized the engines. We’ll still need to put into port after this, but we won’t blow up.”
“How about the Thaleron Junior?” Besket asked, looking up from his panel.
“It’s tied into our power and control systems. The firing solution and activation sequence are at your discretion.”
Limpet nodded. “Excellent. Time to Bajor system?”
“Ten minutes,” Speers said from the helm.
“Prepare to deploy.”
Besket nodded, entering the target sequence into the Voracious’ targeting computer, which relayed it to the Thaleron Junior’s computer. As he did so, he glanced idly at the Starfleet symbol on the viewscreen that represented the Aerostar. “Limpet!” he called out. “The Aerostar is changing course. She’s closing on us!”
“Do they see us?” Limpet asked, pushing out of his chair. He stared at Justan. “Do they see us?”
Justan’s hands ran over his console. “Impossible. The phase cloak is infallible.”
‘“We got it at a surplus sale!” Limpet snapped.
“There’s no way they can see us!” Justan replied.
Suddenly the Voracious shook.
“Direct phaser hit, port quarter,” Besket said, turning to Justan. “It’s almost as if they can see us!”
Justan looked at his panel, shocked. “But…how?”
“Deidre,” Limpet said with disdain.
The comm system trilled. “Privateer Vessel: This is Captain David Conway of the USS Aerostar. You are directed to stand down immediately and prepare to be boarded. Do you understand?”
“Not without a fight, Federation man,” Limpet snapped. “Speers, increase speed to Warp Nine point Six. Besket: Decloak and fire aft torpedoes. Multiple yields, full spread!”
“Keep tracking her,” Conway said, stepping toward the viewscreen. “Tell me when we’re in tractor range.”
“Do I have to give you the whole ‘tractor beam at warp’ speech?” Kamtezen said. “You know, the one that explains how bad an idea that is?”
“I’d really rather you didn’t,” Conway said, as Larkin emerged from the aft turbolift. “Just close on that ship.”
“I believe we have secured Deidre’s cooperation, sir,” Larkin said.
“Did you put the fear of God into her?” Conway asked with a smile.
“No, sir. The fear of Larkin.”
“Good enough,” Conway said. “Are you sure you want to go over there?”
“I am absolutely certain.”
Conway nodded. “Good enough.”
“They’re decloaking!” Gellar said, then looked at his panel. “Incoming!”
The Aerostar shook as torpedo hits slammed into its bow.
Larkin glanced at a nearby panel. “Shields down to sixty-five percent. Minor damage on several decks.”
“More power to forward shields,” Conway ordered.
“They’re closing on the Bajor system,” Saral said. “Two minutes.”
“Increase speed to match and overtake,” Conway said. “How is that thing so fast? That class of ship shouldn’t be near a match for the Aerostar. Man, Deidre did a good job of outfitting that ship.”
“You should see HER outfit,” Ford said.
“Allow me,” Larkin said. “Shut up, Ford.”
“Thanks,” Conway said. “Alexa, what are we looking at here? How long will it take them to activate the weapon?”
Lanham’s fingers glanced over her panel. “If it’s similar to the weapon Shinzon used, then it’ll take a good five or six minutes for the weapon to deploy and acquire its target.”
“Giving us plenty of time to destroy it,” Conway said.
“Except for one small problem,” Kamtezen said from behind the engineering console. “We can’t just blow up the thaleron weapon, or risk blowing up the Voracious.”
Conway turned around. “How come?”
“It’s a radiation-based weapon. We’ll flood the Bajor system with thaleron radiation, making it unlivable for decades.”
Larkin turned to him. “Blowing up the device aboard the Voracious would be worse than simply shooting it at a planet. The device has got to be destroyed from within.”
“This is something you could have told us in the meeting.” Conway stomped his foot. “That’s why we HAVE meetings.”
“I’ve got it!” Justan called out. “I’ve adjusted our neutrino emissions. We’re invisible again.”
“About time,” Limpet said. “Just in time, as a matter of fact.”
“Entering the Bajor system,” Speers announced.
“This would be a good time for us to talk about firing while cloaked,” Besket said. “Are we sure the thing will fire with the cloaking device up?”
Limpet looked at Justan. “Well?”
Justan nodded. “I checked on the Romulans’ claims. The cloaking device will definitely hold while the Thaleron Junior deploys. Then we’ll be visible for only a few seconds while the device fires.”
“Genius!” Limpet exclaimed. “On to Bajor!”
“Kira, you’re still there,” Conway said, looking at the Bajoran woman on the screen as she stood in Ops.
“The civilian population and most of the Starfleet contingent have evacuated to Bajor Six,” Kira said, stepping in front of the Ops table. “But I’m not going to simply abandon the station. I never do. It’s my thing.”
“It’s a stupid thing,” Conway said. “We can’t guarantee we’re going to succeed in stopping this weapon. And we also can’t guarantee they won’t turn it on DS-Nine next.”
“That’s why I’ve got phasers and quantum torpedoes, Captain. Don’t worry about me.”
“I wasn’t, really. Aerostar out.” Conway watched Kira’s image shift to that of the Bajor system. “Gellar, what’s the location of the Voracious?”
“Easy. It’s….” Gellar looked at his panel, then looked up. “It’s…not there anymore.”
“We’ve lost the neutrino emissions,” Gellar said, as Kamtezen stepped down to look over his shoulder.
“They must have adjusted their atomic drift,” Larkin said.
“Yeah,” Kamtezen said. “I think that’s exactly what they did.”
“They can do that?” Conway asked. “How did we not know they could do that?”
“I don’t know, David, but the point is, they did it,” Lanham said.
“Entering the Bajor system,” Saral announced.
“And they could be deploying their weapon right now,” Larkin said.
Kamtezen blanched suddenly, his orange skin going light. He squeezed his knees together. “Oh, that’s not good. My smaltz cycle has advanced to the final stage. We’re way past powder now.”
Conway bit his lip. “I hate to ask…”
“Genital inversion and duplication,” Kamtezen said. “And wow!” His voice raised in pitch. “Is it ever!”
Conway glared at him. “C’mon. Let’s keep it together people. We’ve been here before.”
“Well, not exactly here,” Ford said, as Hal Sholen and Nigel Hampstershire emerged from the turbolift.
“What’s going on, Captain?” Sholen asked.
Conway turned around. “You again? Can’t you go belowdecks and sue somebody or something?”
“We’re just finalizing the divorce documents for Nigel and Deidre.”
“Glad to see you’re making yourself useful,” Gellar said, as he worked over his panel.
“Have you located the Voracious yet, Captain?” Nigel asked, stepping down to join Conway.
“Yes, then we lost it.”
“Not only that,” Ford said. “But we now have a guy on the bridge with smaller genetalia than you.”
<We’ve got to find that ship!> Lanham said inside Conway’s brain.
“Telepath me something I don’t know!” Conway snapped.
“Time is short,” Larkin said.
“Well, think, Larkin,” said Conway. “That’s what we’ve got you for!”
Sholen stepped up next to Conway. “It’s imperative you save the Voracious, as it’s the last vestige of my client’s marriage.”
Conway glared at him. “I thought you told me you weren’t going to be a distraction here.”
“We’re only making plans for Nigel, Captain.”
Conway sighed. “Sorry to hear those two split up.” He glanced at Lanham. “Wait a sec. Split up!”
“Prepare to deploy the weapon,” Limpet said.
“We’ve been preparing to deploy the weapon,” Justan said. “It’s prepared. All we have to do is deploy it.”
“Oh,” Limpet said. “Then deploy the weapon.”
Besket nodded at Justan, and the two began tapping at their panels. A high-pitched whine sounded throughout the Voracious bridge.
A calm, soothing female voice, likely Romulan, spoke up on the bridge speakers. “All hands: This is the Thaleron Junior - Trial Edition. Please evacuate all non-essential crew surrounding the Thaleron Junior. Please input target specifications. The Thaleron Junior is deploying. Stand back, and enjoy the show!”
“It talks,” Limpet said to himself.
“The weapon is deploying!” Besket said eagerly.
“Put in the target coordinates,” Limpet said, leaning forward and rubbing his hands together. “And prepare to drop cloak so we can fire the Thaleron Junior.”
“We don’t need to prepare to drop the cloak,” Justan said. “We’re already prepared. Just tell us to drop the cloak.”
“Fine! Now drop the cloak when I tell you!”
“Now now or now later?”
“No. When I say so!”
“All hands: This is the Thaleron Junior - Trial Edition. The Thaleron Junior is now deployed. Please evacuate all non-essential crew surrounding the Thaleron Junior. Target specications input and accepted. Ready to begin nine-minute countdown.”
Limpet shrunk in his chair. “Nine minute? Why so long?”
“Thaleron Junior requires nine minutes to power up. Do not question Thaleron Junior,” the computer voice replied.
“Well, pardon me,” Limpet said. “By all means, then, start the countdown. Let’s get on with this!”
“Eight minutes, fifteen seconds remaining,” the voice of the Thaleron Junior said calmly. “While you are waiting to bring mass- destruction on an unsuspecting populace, consider purchasing these other great Romulan Surplus products: It’s portable, lethal, and stylish! That’s right, it’s the mini-disruptor. Need to disappear for a while? Introducing the first cloakable pantsuit for personal use. Perfect for any occasion, stain-resistant, and renders you totally invisible!”
“Get on with it!” Limpet growled, rapping his fingers on the command chair.
“Sir: The Aerostar is moving…” Besket called out.
“Put her position on screen,” Limpet said, leaning forward.
He watched the icon representing the Aerostar circle around Bajor.
“They can’t see us. They’re just doing an orbital scan, trying to pick up our power signature. There’s no way they’ll be able to see us until it’s too late.”
Besket cocked his head, watching the schematic. “Sir…we must be having a problem with our targeting computers. The Aerostar’s signal just split into three separate signals.”
Limpet watched the Starfleet symbol suddenly divide and split off in three different directons. “That’s odd.”
“No, it’s not!” Justan said. “Prometheus-class starships can split into three ships!”
“No matter,” Limpet said. “They still won’t find us.”
Just then, on the screen, all three Starfleet symbols glowed and emitted cartoon beams in multiple directions.
“They’re phaser-sweeping our orbital path!” Besket announced.
“Evasive!” called out Limpet. “Keep us out of the way of the phaser sweeps!”
“There are too many of them. They’re low-powered, but once they register an impact…” Justan began, as the Voracious shook slightly. “Direct hit aft!”
“Back us off, back us off!” Limpet shouted. “They’re going to target the impact and…”
Three stronger phaser beams rocked against the Voracious, shaking the vessel as Limpet clambered to his feet.
“Return fire! Drop cloak! Return fire, all weapons!” Limpet called out.
“They’re surrounding us with all three component ships,” Besket said. “There’s no way out.”
“Five minutes, forty-five seconds,” the computer voice called out. “Please remember to register your new Romulan Surplus product as soon as possible. Registration is only fifty-five bars of gold-pressed latinum, and entitles you to these and many other fine discounts…”
<Do you see what I see?> Lanham thought at Conway, looking over her scans.
<Yeah, of course,> Conway said. <Wait. No. What do you see?>
She pointed at the schematic of the Voracious. “There’s a tiny hole in the shields where the thaleron weapon is deployed. We can beam our away team in through there.”
<Oh. That. Of course,> Conway thought sheepishly. <Send the coordinates to the transporter room.> He glanced at Larkin while Lanham input the coordinates. “Get down to the brig. Grab Deidre and get her to the transporter room. Ford, take D’Angelo and Puckett and go with them.”
“Can I go to the brig with you?” Nigel asked, following Ford and Larkin to the turbolift. “You know, to say goodbyes and such?”
“If you must,” Larkin said, stepping aside and allowing Nigel into the lift..
“Ponce,” Ford muttered, as the lift doors closed.
On the viewscreen, the Voracious shimmered into view and fired out in three directions, hitting all three pieces of the Aerostar.
“Come about!” Conway called. “Return fire!”
“The phaser banks are drained,” Gellar said. “All those phaser sweeps temporarily sapped them. We’ll get them back in five or six minutes.”
Lanham watched, frightfully, as the small thaleron emitter rose fully from its housing on top of the Bird of Prey and blossomed open like a blooming onion.
“Torpedoes,” Conway said quickly.
Gellar shook his head. “No good, sir. Unless we want to blow them up, and kill all of us, and Bajor, and everyone on Deep Space Nine in the process.”
Conway thought about it. “Nope. Definitely a bad idea.”
<David…what are we going to do?> Lanham thought, leaning on her panel.
“This is going to get interesting,” Conway said, as the Aerostar shook again. “Hopefully, Larkin and her team will get the job done.”
“Get out of your cell,” Larkin ordered.
Deidre eased off the bunk within her cell and strolled over to her. “We going somewhere, dearest?”
“We are going to the Voracious.”
“No thanks. Been there already.”
“We lost the Voracious, but we found it again, no thanks to you,” Ford said. “Now they’re deploying their weapon, and it’s up to us to stop it.”
“Then I spose you’re rogered, aren’t you?”
“Not if you help us,” Larkin said. “Which you will do.”
“Don’t see why,” Deidre replied, staring at her fingernails and blowing on them.
“Hello again, dear,” Nigel said, stepping out from behind Ford.
“Ah, Nigel. You poncey old fool you, what are you doing here?”
“They thought I might be helpful in convincing you to stop that weapon,” Nigel said. “Plus, I was thinking we could try dating again.”
“Sure,” Deidre said, batting her eyes. “I’ll see you in fifteen to twenty, lover.”
“Excellent!” Nigel exclaimed, clearly missing the point.
“You are just being difficult,” Larkin said. “You know as well as I that destroying Bajoran cities does nothing to advance your cause. Yours is a cause of peace, and returning Cardassia to prominence in the galaxy.”
“There are some good blokes back on Cardassia, for sure,” Deidre said. “But I think I’ve done enough for king and country. I’m content to let the rest sort itself out.”
“But what about revenge?” Ford asked.
“Bah, I’m not that petty,” Deidre said. “Besides, the Voracious’ power systems can’t possibly handle firing a thaleron-based weapon. It’ll overload, and blow up.”
“And flood this system with radiation,” Larkin said.
“Killing everyone in it, including us, if we don’t flee, like now,” Deidre said. “Then again, it’s your choice.”
“Thank you for reminding me,” Larkin said, grabbing Deidre’s wrist and dragging her toward the door. “We are going to the transporter room. And we are going to beam aboard the Voracious and stop that weapon from firing.”
“Good luck, sweetest! I’ll be waiting for you!” Nigel called out after Deidre, waving. “No hard feelings about the divorce, and the attacks, and pillaging, and such. All water over a brook, or somesuch!”
“Lay it on!” Limpet called out. “Blast that ship….ships…until we can’t blast any longer!”
Besket worked his hands over his panel. “Yes, Limpet. But what happens when our weapon fires?”
“We get out of here, and re-cloak, of course,” Limpet said. “And find something else to shoot.”
“Perhaps,” Besket said, and glanced down at his panel. “Sir…transporter signals on Deck One, aft.”
“From the Aerostar?”
“They’re the only ship….ships…in range.”
“Visitors.” Limpet rubbed his hands together. “Saboteurs.”
“Marrazz,” Besket said, and pointed to the door. “Bring two men. Stop whoever it is immediately.”
“I’ll go with,” Limpet said, sliding out of his chair.
“Don’t you want to stick around to see the mass destruction?” Besket asked.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure I know how it’s going to go,” Limpet said, and gestured for Marrazz to follow him out the door.
“Three minutes, thirty seconds remaining,” the computer intoned.
“Do you have any idea what we’re doing here?” Ford asked, stepping up behind Larkin as the team stalked down the dim corridors of the Voracious.
“I would think that question is self-evident.”
“Not so much,” Ford said.
“I think we’re all going to die, if anyone’s interested!” Deidre called out.
“Not so much,” Larkin echoed, and glanced at her tricorder. “We are approaching the weapon.”
“And then what?” asked Ford.
“We disable it.”
Ford stepped closer to Larkin, lowered his voice. “How?”
“I will find a way.”
“And if you don’t?”
“Then we’re rogered!” Deidre snapped.
Ford glanced over his shoulder at her. “What the hell is your problem?”
“I spose I’ve no regrets,” Deidre said softly. “After all, we Bains have been known to go out in huge balls of flame before.”
“To be exact, if we fail, every cell in your body will break down and your skin will disintegrate and melt off your bones,” Larkin said. “You will turn completely to sand approximately ninety seconds after being exposed to the radiation.”
“Well, when you put it that way…” Deidre said, and picked up her pace.
“Heavy damage, lower decks of twin drives one and two. Bulkheads rupturing on the foreward saucer sections,” Gellar chimed in. “Still four minutes away on those phasers.”
Conway gripped Lanham’s panel, standing beside her as he watched the disruptor blasts from the Voracious slam into his ship. Ships.
He reached out a hand and squeezed Lanham’s.
<You really don’t want kids,> Lanham thought.
<Nope. They frighten me,> Conway said. <And they’re harder to potty train then pets.>
<You can’t be serious. I thought…>
<Yeah. I kind of thought I would warm to the idea.>
Lanham nodded. <But that’s not going to happen. Is it?>
Conway shrugged. <‘Fraid not. On the bright side, we may all die in a couple minutes, and then the point will be moot!>
“Lovebirds, stop gazing at each other and do something!” Gellar called out.
“Yes. Prompt action would seem to be warranted,” Sholen said, sitting uneasily in the chair to the right of the command chair.
“We’re sitting ducks,” Conway said, looking at Lanham. “If we take evasive action, we won’t be able to beam the away team back, assuming they’re successful. If they’re not…well, then we’re all fragged.”
Just then, the turbolift doors open and Nigel Bain shuffled out, sighing.
“Problems, Mister Ambassador?” Conway asked, glancing over.
“I fear my ex-wife will never return, Captain. It’s a sad day indeed.”
“We all may die, you know,” Lanham said.
“Yes, well. That would certainly be a shame.” He sighed. “I’ll be in the conference room.” He waved at the viewscreen. “Good luck with…with all of that.”
“Thanks,” Conway said. “Charming fellow.”
Larkin, jogged into the ventral cargo bay, followed by Deidre, Ford, Puckett, and D’Angelo. The room was rust-toned, like the rest of the Voracious interior, except for the mass of cables and blinking lights attached to the ceiling, held up by a massive piston and interlocking metal legs, which was a mix of grey, green, and purple, looking positively Romulan.
“That would be the weapon of doom, then,” Deidre said, gesturing at the device.
“We should have brought Kamtezen,” Larkin said as she stared at the knotted cables, then consulted her tricorder. “He would have the best chance of disabling this device.”
“Why didn’t we bring him?” Ford asked, glancing at a nearby viewscreen, which displayed Bajor, and a large, red bullseye, focused on what he guessed was one of the planet’s major cities.
“We broke up recently. There is still…much awkwardness between us.”
“Ahh,” Ford said. “I’ll ponder that as my SKIN STARTS TO TURN TO PIXIE DUST!”
“Yes, well,” Larkin said. “My mistake.”
Dedire stepped up beside her. “Wait a tic. You’re an android. You’re programmed with gigaquads of knowledge, aren’t you?”
“That is more or less true, yes.”
“So you must know how to disable this thing.”
Larkin stared at thee piston in the middle of the room, and the interlocking legs, as the machines low wine got louder and louder, and the lights within the mass of cables and beneath the ceiling, where the cannon was mounted to the exterior of the ship, started glowing brighter. “Two minutes, forty-five seconds remaining. Act now, and we will include with your Thaleron Junior a biogenic device at half price.”
“I have theories,” Larkin said quietly.
“So act on them!” Ford said.
“I am hesitant. If my theories are incorrect, we all die.”
“I think we’ll all die if you do nothing, too,” Deidre said. “Isn’t that right?”
Larkin nodded. “You have a point.”
“Two minutes, fifteen seconds remaining. Remember to thoroughly clean Thaleron Junior after each use.”
Deidre backed away. “Maybe we should seriously consider running away very fast.”
“That would not help, at this juncture,” Larkin said, and suddenly dove at the mass of cables, pulling each cable apart with vicious android speed.
“There you go, Larkin!” Ford exclaimed, pumping his fist. “You show that two-bit hairdryer who’s boss!”
Puckett and D’Angelo looked at each other worriedly.
Deidre backed closer to the door, which opened promptly. She turned just in time to see Limpet’s fist catch her under her jaw, sending her to the floor.
“No you don’t!” Ford called out, racing across the cargo bay and leaping mid-air at Limpet, who caught him easily with a punch to the gut, sending him to the floor.
Puckett and D’Angelo pivoted around, firing with their phaser rifles.
Limpet, Marrazz, and two other Privateers circled the cargo bays like wary cats, dodging phaser beams and shooting back with their disruptor pistols.
Ford crawled over to where Deidre lay, stunned. “Deidre, are you all right?”
“Were you trying to be chivalrous, lad, or were you hoping to get laid today?”
“A little of both,” Ford said sheepishly.
“Good show.” Deidre leaned up on her elbows and watched the pandemonium: Larkin tearing wildly at the Thaleron Junior’s circuitry; Limpet and Marazz and two of her former henchmen tangling with Puckett and D’Angelo.
“You know, if we’re all going to die, we might as well make out,” Ford said.
“I suppose a little…test drive…wouldn’t hurt,” Deidre said, and grabbed Ford by the back of his neck, pulling him to her.
“Glad you know my metaphor. I….mmmmmmph!”
On the viewscreen just above Ford, the planet Bajor turned innocently, and the bulls-eye focused on Bajor City grew brighter.
“What the hell’s going on over there?” Conway said, leaning on Lanham’s panel and staring at the viewscreen as the Voracious continued shooting, taking potshots at the weaving three sections of the Aerostar.
“I don’t know,” Gellar said. “But I’d be more worried about what’s going on over here. Casualty reports coming in from multiple decks. Depressurization ship-wide. We’ve got to consider withdrawing!”
“Not until we get our people, back,” Conway said. “Give them a little more time.”
“Do you think Larkin and Ford will be able to get the job done?”
Conway shrugged. “Larkin’s been in tighter spots before. And Ford may be an ass most of the time, but underneath that sex-starved exterior, there’s a sensitive, thinking man who won’t let his crewmates down.”
<That’s sweet. You really think that?>
<No. Not really.>
“Mmmmmmmm…Deidre…your breasts are so…perky! They remind me of….of someone I know on the Aerostar.”
“Ex-girlfriend?” Deidre asked as she and Ford pawed each other on the cargo deck.
“Um, not exactly. But he’s a great guy.”
“STOP…DOING THAT!” Limpet cried out, leaping at Larkin, who deftly kicked him out of the way with one leg, not even looking in his direction.
“You shall not disable Thaleron Junior,” the female computer voice said evenly. “Do not taunt Thaleron Junior. Thaleron Junior will be victorious!”
“Thaleron…Junior…will…SHUT…UP!” Larkin shouted, pulling at the cables. She glanced up. The high-pitched whine continued. The ceiling glowed brighter, as the weapon above started final warm-up.
“Thaleron Junior will fire in thirty seconds. Do not use Thaleron Junior without consulting your physicians. Side effects of proximity to Thaleron Junior include vomiting, nausea, dry mouth, cell decomposition, dizziness, skin melting, and certain sexual side effects.”
“Uh-oh,” Ford said, curling against Deidre as Limpet rolled over both of them, and reached out two hands to strangle the British pirate. “Get…OFF…HER!” he cried.
“I can fight my own battles. I’m only using you for sex!” Deidre snapped back, punching Limpet and reaching out to likewise strangle him.
“Don’t ruin my plan!” Limpet snarled, pushing Deidre up against the wall and slamming her head into it. “I’ve been your yes man long enough!”
“This isn’t a threesome!” Ford cried, grabbing Limpet by the shoulder and ripping him off Deidre. He then set upon the Cardassian, pummeling him relentlessly with both fists.
“Thaleron Junior will fire in fifteen seconds. Will the android in the room please acknowledge defeat.”
“NEVER!” Larkin called out, and punched into one of the casings beneath the maze of interlocking cables, ripping out shards of circuitry.
Lt. Frank D’Angelo gripped Marrazz arms and held them back as Puckett punched him repeatedly. The other two Privateers lay unconscious on the deck. Both Puckett and D’Angelo looked up as they heard the final countdown.
Deidre crawled over Limpet, laughing. “You see, you silly mutineer! You can’t destory Deidre Bain that easily!”
Larkin stared up at the thrumming device, her hands finally falling limp at her side. “Oh sh**,” she said solemnly.
The thrumming rose to an ear-splitting crescendo…
Ford turned to look again at the viewscreen. A frightening tunnel of green energy shot out at Bajor, slamming into its primary continent’s eastern seaboard.
“No!” Larkin shouted, rushing toward the screen.
Deidre leaned up. “That’s it. We’re rogered.”
Limpet laughed, wiping his bloody nose and pushing Ford off him. “Hah. Now, Deidre, you see the true might of Cardassian superiority!”
The screen suddenly went blank.
“And that is an example of the frightening devastation you can cause, if you purchase the full version of Thaleron Junior. Please note that the Trial Version of Thaleron Junior does not actually kill anything. Although it seriously considered killing the distruptive android. Thank you, and good night.”
With that, the mass of ruined circuitry in the middle of the room stopped glowing, and its noise died to a whimper, and, finally, even that went silent.
Ford crawled to his feet, helping Deidre up. “Trial version?”
“You bought an infomercial!” Deidre laughed, kicking Limpet in the gut. “You moron! You bought a bloody advert!”
Limpet leaned up, staring at the blank screen, awe-struck. “No. It’s not possible.”
“It is quite possible,” Larkin said.
That’s when the lights inside the device flared back to life again, with a bright green glow. “On second thought, the Thaleron Junior will now self-destruct in thirty seconds.”
“Oh, smeg it!” Deidre shouted, as Ford pushed her to the door.
“Get the others,” Larkin said, tossing Limpet over her shoulder and running out after Ford. “Aerostar, this is Commander Larkin. We request immediate emergency evacuation!”
“Power levels within the device are rising off the charts,” Gellar said, looking up. “That thing is going to blow, and take the Voracious with it.”
“And spread radiation around the Bajor system, killing us all?” Conway asked.
Gellar checked his readings. “Nope. Just a regular explosion.”
“Whew,” Conway said. “I mean, wait…get those people off that ship!”
“Right,” Gellar said, and started tapping at his panel.
Nigel Bain emerged from the conference room, stretching and yawning. “Any developments, Captain?”
“I hope you’re insured,” Conway said. “Your new ship is about to become space particles.”
Nigel stared at the viewscreen. “What’s that?”
Privateers and Starfleet officers alike scrambled down the cramped corridor of the Voracious, Larkin clearing the way.
“Say again, Aerostar,” she said.
Her combadge crackled. “We’re having difficulty getting a lock. The last few rounds of phaser fire from the Voracious damaged our transporters,” Gellar responded. “Give us a couple minutes.”
“We do not have a ‘couple’ minutes, Lieutenant,” Larkin said. “Please work with all possible alacrity.”
“Yeah. Something like that, Commander. Hold on!”
In the commotion, Ford fell to the back of the group, and found Deidre suddenly gripping the front of his uniform, pushing him against the bulkhead, kissing him deeply.
“Mmph…wha…I thought we were finished making out.” Ford glanced at the others who were moving quickly down the corridor, toward what he wasn’t certain. “I mean, you’re a nice girl and all, but I’m not really looking for a long-term thing.”
“You silly boy,” Deidre said, cupping Ford’s face. “Thank you for confirming my suspicions.”
“That the Starfleet way wins out, in the end?”
“No, no, dearest,” Deidre said, wrinkling her nose. “That your obsession with sex distracts you completely. Till next time, darling!” She gave him another deep kiss, then kneed him in the crotch, and ran off in the opposite direction.
“But…wait….” Ford said in a high pitched squeal, falling to his knees. He reached out toward Deidre, but she’d already rounded the bend, disappearing down a side corridor. He turned and reached out toward the mob fleeing the cargo area. “Wait!” He got up and ran toward the others, glancing back a moment in the direction Deidre had gone.
And then he felt himself dematerialize.
Conway winced as the Voracious exploded in a bright fireball on the viewscreen, shaking all three sections of the Aerostar.
Lanham stared at the viewscreen between her fingers. “W…well?”
“We got everyone aboard,” Gellar said. “I think.”
“Pull back, and reassemble the ship,” Conway said, heading back down to his command chair. “Then find us a port. I imagine we’re pretty banged up.”
“The closest starbase is Deep Space Nine,” Gellar said.
“Find another one,” Conway muttered.
“I don’t think we’ll make it to another one,” Kamtezen said, surveying the engineering reports. “Shields are gone. Engines are fragged. Life support is on minimal. And I just lost most of my body hair.”
“Fantastic,” said Conway. “Send all our survivors, along with a security detachment, to Sickbay. I’ll meet them there.”
<Should I come with you?> Lanham thought as Conway headed to the turbolift.
<Might as well,> he thought, noncomittally. He looked at Gellar. “Lieutenant, you have the bridge. Take us to…” He sighed. “DS-Nine.”
“Deidre? Deidre?” Ford said, racing from one biobed to the other.
Benzra glanced over at Ford. “What the ssssssssssssshnarzz are you talking about?’
“We’re missing somebody.”
“The transporter locked on to all available life forms,” Larkin said, surveying the crowd of Privateers, along with her away team, that filled the Sickbay as security officers suddenly poured in, weapons ready. “One must assume Deidre either escaped, or was killed.”
“She knew what she was doing,” Ford said, touching his lips. “Man, did she know what she was doing.”
“Are you injured?” Benzra asked, turning to him.
“I’ll let you know,” Ford said distantly, and headed for the door.
“Report,” Conway said, as he and Lanham stepped into Sickbay.
“Away team present and accounted for, except for Deidre,” Larkin said. “And you, sir?”
“About ready to get this f****ing probe removed from my neck, Larkin.” Conway moved through the crowd, glancing at the dazed and bruised crew from the Voracious. “Deidre?”
Larkin shook her head. “Unknown, sir.”
He nodded. “Okay, then. We’re putting in at Deep Space Nine. Boy, is this going to be a fun report to write.”
“No casualtiesssssssssss,” Benzra hissed. “Jussssssst bumpsssss and bruisessssss.”
“Then move the Privateers to the brig,” Conway said. “As for the rest of you, congratulations. You saved Bajor. Which is fine. I guess.”
“Sir, if I am no longer needed, I wish to report to engineering,” said Larkin.
Conway looked at her. “What for?”
“I too have a pain in the neck that needs to be removed.”
Conway nodded. “Well said.”
Stardate 57909.3. The Aerostar is docked at Starbase Deep Space Nine, getting some fairly major repairs before returning to assignment.
Bajor is safe, for the moment, thanks in no small part to my crew.
The Voracious, unfortunately for her new owner, Nigel Hampstershire, is a total loss. And, unfortunately, ‘acts of trial-version thaleron devices’ are not covered on Nigel’s insurance policy, which is a real shame.
Deidre Bain’s whereabouts are unknown; however, our sensors did pick up a small shuttlepod leaving the Voracious just before her destruction. I don’t know who was aboard, or if it escaped the explosion intact, but chances are it’s Deidre, because that’s just my luck.
And these types of things tend to come back to bite me in the ass sometime down the road.
Conway rubbed the mild rash on the back of his neck as he sat in his readyroom looking over his report, preparing to submit it to Starfleet.
His chime rang, but he was so deep in thought he barely noticed it. The door chime rang again, and he looked up. “Come.”
The doors split open, and Alexa Lanham walked in. “Do you have a moment?”
He nodded. “Sure. Sit down.”
“Hal wanted me to give this to you, so you could look it over,” she said, and sat opposite Conway, sliding the padd across the desk to him.
Conway picked it up and scanned it, sipping from his steaming triple mocha java. “Are you sure about this?”
“I think you’re sure, which is the point,” Lanham said. “You’ll see that Hal worked out a great deal for both of us.”
“Let me guess, you get one of the three sections of the Aerostar, and half of Bucky,” Conway said, glancing longingly at the photo on his desk of his prized Welsh corgi.
“Nothing so extreme as that. Actually, I talked him out of seeking damages from either of us, as we don’t really own anything.”
“Good point,” Conway said. “So we’re just talking about…”
“Annulment, actually,” Lanham said. “The marriage will have never happened.”
“Even though it did.”
“Technically. Let’s just call it a trial year.”
“Ahh, and if I agree to have kids, I get to own the full version,” Conway said wistfully.
“This isn’t a trick, or some sort of phony offer. It’s not about winning, or losing, or how you play the game. It’s what it is. I want kids, you don’t. Enough said.”
“No, I’m just not married anymore,” Lanham said. “If you thumb the padd.”
“You’ve already approved it?”
Lanham leaned back, slapping her thighs. “I saw no reason to wait.”
Conway eyed the padd. “So you think you’ll find someone else on this ship who’s willing to father your kids?”
“Maybe I won’t find anyone. Maybe I’ll just get kids on my own. Maybe I won’t stick around.”
Conway’s eyes widened. “You’re leaving?”
“I didn’t say that. At least, not yet. But as for the future, well, who knows.”
“You are mad,” Conway said. “Damn, I almost wish I had that thing in my neck again so I could tell for sure..”
Lanham smiled gently, and reached out to touch Conway’s hand. “No, dear. You really don’t.”
Conway sighed and gave the padd one more look, then pressed his thumb on the approval box. He slid it back to Lanham. “Who knew that, because of my honeymoon, I’d be getting divorced. Again.”
“Annulled, but, yes.” She stretched, then stood up, and picked up the padd. “Anyway, don’t think of it as losing a wife. Think of it as gaining a lawyer.”
“I’m so thrilled,” Conway said. “Even now, Nigel is down in Hal’s new ‘office,’ working on a way to reverse the divorce settlement, so he isn’t liable for the damages caused to Bajoran farmland when the remnants of the Voracious hit the planet.”
“Poor Nigel,” Lanham said. “Do you think he still pines for Deidre?”
“I don’t really care,” Conway muttered.
“At any rate, I’ll be moved out within the week. Lieutenant Gellar found me some nice quarters on deck six.”
“Isn’t that sweet of him,” Conway said, gritting his teeth.
Lanham turned to the door, then thought better of it and returned to Conway’s side. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Beneath it all, you’re actually a good guy, David.”
“No. I’m really not.”
“Suit yourself,” Lanham said, and headed back for the door. “Either way, we just don’t want the same things. And isn’t that what matters?”
“I guess,” Conway said, and took another sip of his coffee, returning to his report.
“Commander, how are you feeling?” Kamtezen asked as Larkin walked into Engineering, looking around at the readouts, as DS-Nine staff moved about, continuing repairs.
“I am functioning within normal parameters,” Larkin said. “As is my emotion program.”
“That’s a relief,” Kamtezen said. “And no bouts of spasmodic armature contraction?’
“No. But thank you for your concern.” She glanced at Kamtezen. “I trust your genetalia have reverted to their usual state.”
“Same position and same number as before. Just a bit of a burning senstation but that’ll pass.”
“I am pleased to hear that,” Larkin said, looking around. “How go the repairs?”
“We’ll be back up in less than a week,” Kamtezen said. “This Deep Space Nine crew is good. Although the little Ferengi scared me half to death when he stepped out from behind the primary ODN junction.”
“Yes. The little things count for so much,” Larkin said distantly, and turned to leave Engineering. “Have a pleasant day, Lieutenant.”
“Yes, uh, Commander. Little things,” Kamtezen said, almost to himself. “Hey, Larkin…do you want to have lunch later?”
“I am…busy,” Larkin said, and turned down the corridor.
“It’s a bit early to be drinking, isn’t it?” Wendy Wheedling, lounge manager of the Starlight Lounge-A said, leaning on her elbows and gazing at Ford as he sipped his bubbling fwarz-sharsher.
“Not today it isn’t,” Ford said, staring into his drink, then taking another gulp.
“I hear you had a harrowing escape. Brushes with life and death can be so trying.”
“Yeah, you have no idea.”
“Do you need me to please you somehow?” she asked, batting her eyelashes.
Ford looked at her. “You’re an odd one, aren’t you?”
“I’m whatever you want me to be.” She leaned forward and kissed Ford on the cheek, then leaned back and smiled. “Another drink?”
Ford grinned. “Wendy, you’re like the best bartender ever.”
“Mister Ford. If you please?” a voice called from the doorway to the Lounge, and Ford looked up.
“Please walk with me.”
“I’ll, uh, be back,” Ford said, smiling at Wendy and shifting off the bar stool, heading for the door.
Dr. Benzra sidled over from a nearby table, watching Larkin and Ford walk out. She turned to look at Wendy, compound eyes oscillating. “You like that one, yesssss?’
“He is a dream, Creator.”
“Doctor,” Benzra corrected. “Call me Doctor.”
Wendy gave a slight curtsy. “As you wish, Doctor Creator.”
“Humanssssss are hard to figure out. You sssssssshould be careful.”
“But you have taught me all I need to know, Doctor. I live to serve you and make you proud, and find out about all humanity, and report back to you with every vivid, excruciating detail.”
“Yes, yessss, I know,” Benzra said, gently patting Wendy on the head with her claw. “And you do a fine job of it. And even if you didn’t, I could alwayssssssss create another one.”
“As you wish, Benzra,” Wendy said, and bowed her head. “Yours is forever superior.”
“Now let’sssssss not get carried away…”
“So what do you want?” Ford asked, as he and Larkin walked down the corridor.
“We need to talk, as First Officer to Second Officer.”
“Really? You’ve never talked to me like this before. I’m so psyched!”
Larkin nodded patiently. “Yes, well, I am pleased that you are psyched. Now then, we have a troubling matter to attend to.”
“I know, I know. I shouldn’t be hitting on the head bartender, or drinking during the afternoon, during my shift. But, I figure, we all almost died, so it’s, you know, like special circumstances.”
Larkin quickly deactivated her emotion program. “That is not what I meant, although you bring up several matters of grave concern. No, I was referring to Captain Conway. As you may know, he has recently severed his relationship with Doctor Lanham.”
“He has?” Ford asked. “Where have I been?”
“Drinking and fraternizing, apparently.”
“Oh. Right!” Ford grinned. “So what does this mean for us, other than another single woman on the ship?”
Larkin was relieved she’d deactivated her emotion program, as it would have likely prompted her to strangle Ford just then. “We must endeavor to support the Captain in this time of emotional turmoil. We must make sure he is fit to lead the crew, and that his judgment is not being unduly hindered by this recent revelation.”
“Oh, he’ll be fine,” Ford said, as they passed Counselor Telvin’s office.
“Transference? You think I’m transferring my anger? Well transfer this, buddy!” a voice cried out within the office, followed by several loud cracks.
The doors to Telvin’s office slid open, and Conway shouldered his way out, pushing past Larkin and Ford.
“Pardon me. Official ship’s business to get to,” he said, and headed down the corridor.
Telvin stepped gingerly out of the office, his lower lip quivering. “Is…is he gone?”
Larkin stared down the corridor. “For now. Are you all right?”
“I am fine,” Telvin said, smoothing his robes. “But I fear Captain Conway has some serious matters of the heart to attend to.”
“I do not envy his situation,” Larkin said.
Ford thought of Deidre, then shook his head. “Yeah, me neither.”
“He destroyed my coffee table,” Telvin said glumly. “Which is a shame, as his coffee was sitting on it at the time. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to Sickbay to have my scalded lap looked at.”
“Good luck!” Ford called after him.
Larkin considered all of this. “Humans spend far too much time thinking about love.”
“Good thing we don’t have to worry about stuff like that, huh, Larkin?” Ford asked. “An emotionless android and a swinging bachelor have no time for such things!”
“Indeed,” Larkin said. “Please excuse me.” And she headed off the opposite way Conway had gone.
Ford, for his part, stood alone in the corridor. “Yeah. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine being alone. Really.”
He stood there a few more beats, glancing around.
“Oh, screw this.” He jogged off back in the direction of the Starlight Lounge. “Hey, Wendy! Order up!”