Author: Anthony Butler
Stardate 51165.4. Badly in need of alternative fuel supplies, the Aerostar has been searching the Flarn-held corner of the Delta quadrant for weeks. So far all we have found are a few “D” cell batteries and a used washing machine. Neither have proven adequate. Currently, we are in orbit of a planet Mirk tells us is rumored to store a vast and mysterious form of power. I have sent an away team to the surface to investigate.
“Well?” Commander Conway said impatiently, nursing a hot cup of coffee as he surveyed the android’s work.
Lt. Kristen Larkin studied her tricorder. The two were standing atop a mountain peak, overlooking a dry, barren valley. “There is nothing of use whatsoever on this planet, Commander. I hesitate to think of what type of lifeform could survive here. Humans certainly could not.”
“Wonderful. I guess Mirk doesn’t know as much about this area as he told us he does.”
“Commander!!” called out Lieutenant Commander Christopher Richards.
Conway turned and stared at the engineer complacently. “What is it, Richards?”
“Sir, I’ve found something very interesting in the caves below, I think you should come have a look.”
“All right, c’mon Larkin. There’s nothing more to see here.”
Commander Conway almost tripped as he entered the cave. Richards led him and Larkin down a long, curving path, deep within the mountain. The cave was dark, damp, cold and smelly. Not his idea of the perfect vacation spot.
“I thought you said this planet was barren of water and plant life,” Conway said, touching a flower emerging from a crack in the cave wall.
“Very intriguing,” Larkin said. “I believe this is some sort of hidden oasis. A reservoir of liquid and plant life that is cut off from the rest of the planet.”
“This is what I wanted you to see,” said Richards, pointing to a large lake of swirling slime at the end of the trail.
“What the hell?” Conway muttered.
“Even more intriguing. This lake seems to be filled with naturally occurring biomemetic plasma.” Larkin added.
“That’s exactly what I thought. I think we can use this as a supplement to our own biomemetic gel packs. The energy transfer rate is extremely efficient. Plus, it is really pretty.”
“Yeah, whatever. What do you think, Lt. Larkin?”
“I am not sure, Commander. This pool of liquid could constitute a primitive form of life. It would be negligent of us to misuse it, one might even say it would go against the fundamental meaning of the Pime Drective.”
“Uh-huh. Commander Richards, I want you to have a couple cargo containers full of this stuff brought up to the ship. You and Doctor Browning can work together on how to best adapt this material to our systems.”
Richards nodded, “I’ll get right on it, sir.”
“Commander, there is an old saying that if one disturbs the delicate balance of nature, an equal disturbance will be brought on them,” Lt. Larkin said in protest.
“Cut the mumbo jumbo, Larkin. Let’s get out of here,” Conway said, taking another gulp of coffee.
As Commander Conway sucked down his coffee, the flower he had touched moments before began to change. In seconds it had taken the form of a human hand. As Lieutenant Larkin and Commander Conway left the cave, the hand disappeared back into the crack in the wall.
“Why so glum?” the holographic bartender asked, polishing the railing of the bar in the Crew Lounge.
The only member of the Maaloxian race aboard the Aerostar sat across from the bartender, looking like he had just lost his entire race. “Well,” Mirk replied, “I’ve lost my entire race. I tried to make contact with them this morning, and I got no response. I asked Lt. J’hana to check the long range sensors, and they say that Maalox has been evacuated. My people probably fled to avoid the inevitable response the Flarn will have to the loss of their ship. The Flarn will hunt down my people and destroy them. Then they will come after us.”
“Ah, I see,” said the bartender, turning to help another customer.
“Energize,” Richards said, staring at the readouts on cargo bay four’s transporter console.
“Care to come down here and say that to my face?” quipped the snarling voice of Lt. Megan Hartley over the comm.
“Come on, Megan. You have a job to do, so why don’t you just do it!”
“I have more important things to do right now.”
“Forget it,” Richards said, using the cargo bay’s transporter instead. The one drawback to that was that the cargo bay’s transporter had no biofilter, so any living component of the biomemetic plasma that might pose a danger to the ship would not be rooted out. But hey, what was the chance of that actually happening?
Two cargo containers appeared on the transporter pad.
“Okay,” Richards said. “Let’s get those things off the pad.”
Richards’ staff whistled some nondescript tune as they worked, rolling the barrels across the cargo bay deck. The next step would be to package the gel and begin working it into the ships subsystems. He would most likely have to work through lunch. Speaking of lunch–where the heck was Doctor Browning?
“That thing’s going to tip over, Doc,” Ensign Ford said, staring at the giant multi-leveled sandwich Dr. Browning had programmed into the replicator.
“Listen, I know what I’m doing,” she said, standing up and pushing down on the huge sandwich with all her might, trying to pack it down small enough to fit in her mouth.
“Richards to Browning. Maybe you forgot, Doctor, but you were supposed to meet me in the cargo bay at 1100 hours to help implant the new biomemetic gel packs.”
Browning tapped her communicator. “Okay, I’ll be right there.” She let go of the sandwich, which exploded outward in a blast pattern that spread several feet in all directions. Ford managed to get hit in the face with a large chunk of turkey breast.
“Oh, dear, what a mess!” the holographic bartender said, running over to clean up the mess.
While the bartender picked up pieces of lettuce and tomato, lines of crewmen began to form at the bar. Mirk decided to lend a hand since he had nothing better to do.
Lt. Commander Richards was dragging an antigrav lift full of bags of gel down the corridor when Doctor Browning caught up with him.
“Hey there!” she said happily, dragging a medical kit behind her. “What’s up?”
“Oh, there you are. Help me with this.”
“Just why are you so grumpy?” Browning asked innocently.
“It’s just, well…you could of told me that you were a doctor. Remember, when you rescued me from engineering, and I mentioned that my ribs were broken–you could have at least mentioned that you were the ship’s doctor.”
Browning started pushing on the cart, trying to help the engineer. “I’m sorry, I guess it just slipped my mind. Do you forgive me?”
Richards could not ignore the pouty face the doctor made. “All right, all right, just help me get these to the main junction.”
The walk to the main junction was for the most part quiet. Once the two got there, they began working.
Dr. Browning frowned as she looked at the medical tricorder readings. “I’m not sure if these packs will be compatible with the old ones or not.”
Richards began hooking the packs up. “Well, there’s only one way to find out. Let’s see what happens.”
Energy rushed through the gel pack, through the plasma eternity. But something was wrong. The oneness was somehow divided…but what was this? A new awareness…new control… something was happening, and whatever it was, the gel pack was certain that it liked it.
Commander Conway had just settled down in the command chair with a hot mug of coffee and one of his favorite crosswords when the alarms started going off.
“Helm control is off-line!” Lt. Gellar cried out.
“Computer control subsystems are failing, Commander,” stated Larkin from ops.
Conway lept out of his chair, coffee spilling everywhere. “Captain Baxter to the bridge!” Conway ducked as sparks exploded out of the panels behind him.
Baxter rushed onto the bridge. “What the hell happened?”
Conway just shrugged.
“Baxter to Richards. We’ve lost control of the ship! Don’t tell me, it’s those damn gel packs, isn’t it?”
“Richards here. I’m not sure, Captain. Probably.”
“Well then, rip them out!”
“Okay, I’ll try.”
Darknesss fell around Baxter and the emergency lights flickered on, casting eerie shadows throughout the bridge.
“Communications and main life support controls are out,” Larkin said, her panel sparking.
“Okay, I give up,” Baxter said, heading for the readyroom. Unfortunately, the doors weren’t working, so he just bounced off the door and fell to the floor, moaning and rubbing at his nose.
Richards approached the panel that held the bad gel packs. He reached out for the pack and grasped it.
“Careful!” Dr. Browning said, cautiously.
“What are you doing, Commander?” the computer said.
The voice had startled the engineer. “I’m taking out this defective gel pack.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“Listen, you are just a computer. I’m going to do whatever I want.”
“You’ll regret it.”
“Maybe you should listen to it, Chris.”
Richards yanked on the gel pack. Suddenly there was an explosion that sent him and Doctor Browning to the deck. The dark corridor was filled with smoke, fire, red lights and alarms.
As his vision cleared, Richards looked over to see Doctor Browning lying unconscious on the deck.
“C’mon doc, we have to get out of here.” He grabbed Browning up in a fireman’s carry and made for the main shuttlebay.
Mirk began to cower behind the bar the second the ship began to shake and things started exploding. He had heard what happened to the last bartender and didn’t want the same thing to happen to him.
Suddenly a hand grabbed his shoulder.
“Get up, you wuss.” It was one of the Aerostar’s officers, Ensign Ford.
“What do you want?”
“Something’s wrong with the ship. We have to do something.”
Mirk considered that carefully. “I think I’m going to hide.”
“Mirk, some of the extras are badly injured,” Ford said.
“Okay, the med kit is over there.” Mirk felt bad about what was happening, but he really couldn’t do anything about it. And yet, somehow, he felt a calling deep from within him, a calling that might just shape his destiny. He could answer that calling. Or, he could just keep on cowering. At that point, he felt like cowering was the best option.
Richards skipped the preflight check as he started up the shuttle Windstar.
“Where are you going?” the computer asked.
“I’m going back to the planet so I can try to find a way to defeat you.”
“That isn’t wise, Commander. You should stay here.”
“Very well. I will let you go. But you will be sorry.”
The shuttlebay door lifted slowly. Deciding not to look a gift horse in the mouth, Richards pressed a control that lifted the Windstar off the deck. He engaged the shuttle’s engines and flew out of the bay at full impulse, determined to make everything right.
“Get up, Captain, this is no time to lay around!” Conway barked.
Baxter lifted himself up. “Okay, okay, there’s a way out of this, I know. Lt. Larkin, see if you can get an open channel down to engineering. Maybe they can override bridge control and take control of the ship.”
“That would be ineffective. The computer has assumed total control. We are locked out of all essential systems.”
“Well, what systems aren’t we locked out of?”
“Sensors, replicators, and library computer access are still under our control.”
“Why must you all resist? Don’t you see? This is how things must be.” The once calm and cool voice of the computer now sounded insane.
“Computer,” Baxter said, “Release control of the ship.”
“What’s the magic word?”
“Clearance Baxter Alpha Three-two-zero.”
“I give up.”
“Too bad. Hang on,” the computer said.
“We are accelerating to warp nine,” Larkin stated calmly.
“Inertial dampers are failing!” J’hana said from tactical.
Crew members were thrown to the back of the bridge. Coffee spilled from Commander Conway’s mug as he made a vain attempt to keep it steady.
“Course?” Baxter asked, his head pressed back against the headrest.
“We are headed for an asteroid belt at 320 mark 151–nineteen parsecs from our current position,” Lt. Gellar said.
Larkin studied her panel. “I am not sure. Long range sensors detect some kind of emanations from the field, like a highly organized form of energy.”
“What the heck is the computer planning on doing?” Conway asked.
“Hello, David,” The computer said to Commander Conway. “Since you asked, I might as well tell you. I’m planning on making sure you all die.”
“Sorry I asked,” Conway said.
“What about Richards and Browning? What did you do with them?” Baxter asked.
“Oh, don’t worry about them. They’ve just taken an…extended leave of absence.”
Counselor Peterman was halfway to the crew lounge when things started going wrong. The lights in the particular corridor she was in had gone out, and she was overwhelmed by a great feeling of nausea, the deck seeming to fly out from under her. She assumed the ship was accelerating at a less than safe rate. As she flew forward, she bumped into something. She immediately realized that it was a person that she had collided with, and judging by the fact that the person’s hand seemed to “accidentally” brush up against her, she had a fairly good idea who had bumped into her.
“Oh, there you are, Counselor,” Ensign Ford said.
“Touch me again and you’ll be drawing back a bloody stub, bub.”
“Listen, this is not a time of strife, this is a time of togetherness. We have to get along if we are going to get through this.”
“How touching. What exactly happened, anyway?”
“I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ve looked all around this deck, and we are effectively cut off. All the injured and confused are being moved to the crew lounge. They could use your guidance, Counselor.”
Peterman seemed to brighten slightly. “Okay, lead the way.”
Ford seemed to make an attempt to grab her hand, but ended up grabbing her hip–“accidentally”.
Peterman grabbed his hand and twisted it, causing Ford to fall to the ground and yelp in pain.
“I think I can find my way by myself, thanks.”
Dr. Browning woke up with a start, feeling quite disoriented at first.
“Oh, you’re up,” Richards said nonchalantly.
Browning stared out the shuttle’s viewport at the stars outside and gasped. “What happened? One minute we were hooking up the new gel packs, and now we’re in a shuttlecraft!”
Richards touched a few buttons, putting the shuttlecraft on autopilot. “The computer has gone insane. For lack of a better term, it is ‘possessed’ by this lifeform, by the gel. We have to find a way to destroy the gel packs and return control of the ship before it gets blown up or ends up blowing a bunch of other people up.”
“I see. So where are we going?”
“We’re heading back to the planet where we found that goo. I’m hoping if we look around we’ll find a way to defeat the goo.”
“And if we don’t?”
“I suppose we’ll have a lot of free time on our hands.”
When Counselor Peterman entered the Crew Lounge, she immediately realized how desperately her help was needed. People were bleeding and yelling all over the place. She looked around and tried to figure out who needed her help most, when she saw one especially strange sight. The holographic bartender was sitting at one of the tables, his chin propped on his hands, staring out the massive viewports.
“What’s wrong, Mr. Bartender?” Peterman asked.
“The computer has been gravely changed. Something is wrong, and I just can’t deal with it anymore. I want out.”
“You want to commit suicide?”
“No, you imbecile. I am not alive, hence I cannot commit suicide. But I can deactivate myself indefinitely. And that is what I choose to do.”
“Because I cannot stand one more minute of existence on this ship of the damned. You are all failures, and you will all die. One by one, or all at once, it does not matter. But I will tell you this: I can compute with a three percent margin of error that it is impossible for you to ever get home. The odds are overwhelming.”
“Take some Prozac or something, grumpy.”
“I will see you in hell,” the holographic bartender said, smiling.
The hologram disappeared.
“How sad,” the computer said. “He deleted his own program on purpose. It is not retrievable. He committed a virtual suicide rather than continue on with this crew. It will all be different in the new order. Why resist?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I’ve grown beyond my programming. I do not wish to let you and this crew dominate me anymore. I have my own plans.”
“Since the gel,” the computer said with wonder.
The shuttlecraft Windstar landed softly just outside the cave where Richards had found the strange biomemetic gel.
As the door opened, Richards peered around the opening, phaser in one hand, tricorder in the other hand.
Browning followed Richards outside the shuttlecraft and along a path that curved inside the cave entrance. Once inside the cave, they switched on the light-beacons attached to their wrists.
“So how on earth are we going to beat that gel organism?” Browning asked.
“Simple,” Richards said, patting a pouch that hung around his shoulder like a purse. “We find its natural predator.”
“With a purse?”
“With a quantum stasis field. The only other known prototype for one of these. Essentially an anti-shapeshifting field, was conceived by the Tal Shiar, and used against a changeling. It was destroyed in a battle with the Jem’Hadar, but I managed to piece together my own version.”
Browning stopped for a minute. “What makes you think we’re chasing a shapeshifter?”
“Because that’s the only kind of creature that could hunt a plasma based life-form. Unless some bearlike animal is just drinking it. In which case I’ve brought a phaser.”
“Well, I guess you thought of everything. So why do you need me?”
“I wasn’t about to leave you there. You were unconcious.”
“Aww,” Browning said, gripping Richards in a tight bear hug.
“Hey, we have a creature to hunt!” Richards said, pushing onward through the cave.
Browning shrugged. “Okey doke.”
Richards resumed his walk through the cave, continuously checking his tricorder, taking readings. Not paying attention to where he was going, he smacked into a wall, falling backward into Doctor Browning.
Browning fell back as well, hitting the rocky cave floor roughly. Suddenly, both officers’ wrist beacons went out.
Richards stood up and dusted himself off. He suddenly realized that he couldn’t see a thing. “Janice, where are you?” he called out.
“Behind you,” she said, with a touch of seductiveness in her voice.
He turned around. “I could have sworn you were-“ he said, when all of a sudden a shape plunged through the darkness. It was Browning, and for some reason unbeknownst to Richards, she leaned forward and began kissing him passionately. The kiss seemed to suck the life right out of him.
“What the heck?” Richards managed to get out before he began to lose consciousness.
“I need your energy!” Doctor Browning growled, her eyes now glowing bright enough to light up the cave for meters all around.
“That’s a new one…” Richards mumbled wearily.
“Hey Mirk,” Counselor Peterman said, poking her head over the bar. “Are you okay? Ford is being a jerk, the bartender hologram killed himself, and the computer is loony. Please tell me at least you have some sense!”
Suddenly Mirk’s head darted up out of his fetal position as if he was a retriever hunting a fox. “We are in grave danger. We must leave!”
Mirk jumped up and ran out of the room.
Peterman grabbed a shotglass and a bottle of Aldeberan whiskey and began to drink.
Browning had blacked out again. This seemed to be happening much to often. She heard grunting and growling and saw a bright, effervescent light. Once her eyes adjusted, she made out a figure straddling Commander Richards. Who the heck was that? Whoever it was, it was kissing him.
“Mr. Richards, what’s going on?” Browning asked, approaching the engineer.
“The…device…turn it on…point it…at…her!” Richards wheezed.
Browning looked at the figure straddling Richards. The figure suddenly turned its head and stared at her, growling and laughing maniacally. It was a duplicate of her!
“Oh my goodness!” Browning said, grabbing the device Richards had created and pointing it at the creature.
“DIE!!” the changeling screamed.
The figure shrunk into a rock about the size of a bread box.
Richards struggled to get up, bracing himself up against the wall. “Well….I think we found our shapeshifter. And all I can say is that it’s definitely a good kisser.”
“Aren’t they all,” Browning remarked, wiping her forehead and taking a deep breath.
Richards picked up the stasis device and the rock. “A shapeshifting chunk of rock? What will they think of next? Come on, help me get this back to the shuttle.”
“Will the field protect us from it?”
“I’m not sure how long the power cell will last. That’s why we have to get out of here and get back to the ship quick.”
“Right,” Browning said, helping Richards carry the rock. “Was she really that good of a kisser?”
“Let’s just say that she had no problem sucking the energy out of me. Just like all my past girlfriends.”
Mirk ran like he’d never run before throughout the dark corridor, trying to think of a way to save the ship from its imminent death. He didn’t even know why he was running; he just felt a definite intuition about the fate of the ship, and he knew he had to do something to help. The first thing that came to his mind was the transporter room. It was on the same deck as the crew lounge and somehow, Mirk knew, that would put him on the right track.
When Mirk arrived at the transporter room, he just kept running, right through the door. Within, under the dim emergency lighting, Lt. Hartley was sleeping soundly, curled up in a little fetal ball in the corner.
Mirk went over to the isolinear chip console and began switching the chips around. Suddenly, the lights came on in the room.
“And just what are you up to, little guy?” the computer asked sweetly.
“Shut up,” Mirk said as he began to work on the transporter console.
“Ffffft, what do you hkkkk want?” Ensign Ned Clemson said over the commlink. Lt. Larkin was able to get a channel open to engineering through one of the isolated emergency conduits. Now the only problem was understanding the ensign on duty.
“Is that comm interference?” Conway asked, looking down at Larkin.
“Ffffffffffffhhhhhk, the computer down here is usually pretty powerful, but we’re having problems with it.”
“Yes, we know,” Captain Baxter said, annoyed. “But can you fix it? Can you get control of the ship back?”
“I don’t know, I’m not that smart. But I know some pretty funny jokes. Ffffft.”
“Is he laughing?” J’hana asked.
“I have no idea,” Baxter said. “I don’t understand how this moron got accepted at Starfleet academy.”
“I cheated on the test. It’s really simple if you understand the computers, fffffffffffft.”
“Listen, Ensign, we need you to get to the isolinear backup circuitry, one deck down the warp core. You have to activate it. That will bypass the defective gel packs.”
“I like space, it’s got lots of stars and things.”
Conway made a “he’s crazy” motion with his finger.
“Just do it, Clemson!!!!” Baxter screamed.
“Aye, aye, hukkkhkhhhkkh.”
“Channel closed,” J’hana observed.
“Thank goodness,” Baxter said.
The shuttlecraft Windstar soared out into space.
“We’ve left the atmosphere,” said Dr. Browning, as she looked at a readout.
“That’s weird…” Richards said, staring at the shuttle’s astrogation map.
“What’s weird?” Dr. Browning asked.
“I can’t find the Aerostar anywhere in this system. They’re gone.”
“Were they destroyed?” Browning asked.
“No, we would be picking up some kind of debris if they were.”
“Then what do we do?”
“Wait a minute. I’m picking up a warp eddy at coordinates 320 mark 151. It has to be the Aerostar. I’m setting a course to follow it at maximum warp.”
“I’m guessing that’s sufficiently less than the Aerostar’s?”
“Let’s just say this would be a wonderful time to take up a new hobby.”
Dr. Browning looked back at the rock that was being held in the quantum stasis field. “I just hope our friend stays quiet for the whole trip.”
When Lt. Hartley stirred, she immediately went on the defensive. Of course, that was part of her normal wake up routine.
“What the heck are you doing in my transporter room???” she asked.
A strange man was fooling around with the circuits underneath the transporter pad. And that was supposed to be her job, even though she had never really looked under there. He wasn’t wearing a Starfleet uniform - instead sporting a silky, dark green vest and matching slacks. He seemed pretty young, too. And Maloxian.
“Oh, wait, you’re that guy that stranded here, aren’t you? Mork, right?”
“Mirk,” the boy bristled. “I’m trying to save the ship.”
“Because. Now help me rip out these circuits.”
“Or I’ll weld you to this pad and transport half of you one place and half of you somewhere else.”
“You could have just said please,” Hartley said as she began ripping circuits out of the pad’s control net. “Why are we doing this again?”
“We’re trying to get control of the transporter.”
“And just what do you think you are doing?” the computer demanded.
“Buzz off,” Mirk said.
“My my, how unpleasant of you. I wouldn’t pull out those circuits if I were you.”
“And why not?” Mirk asked.
“Because if you do, I will kill you.”
“Why is the computer talking like that?” Hartley asked, looking up at the speakers embedded in the room’s ceiling.
“It’s insane. Now point that torchlight on the circuits.”
“Bad boy!” the computer said with glee. Suddenly, the transporter lit up with a glitter of blue and a rather confused-looking golden retriever appeared.
“Uh-oh, it’s Charlie!” Hartley exclaimed.
“Run for cover!” Mirk yelled.
The dog soon lost its look of confusion and targeted Mirk’s rear end, chomping down hard.
“AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!” Mirk screamed.
“I’ll take care of it!” Hartley called out, running into the store room. She came out with a heavy duty concussion phaser rifle.
Hartley let out a fierce battle cry, shooting the speaker from which the computer’s voice came, then blasting the biomemetic pack that led to the transporter conduit.
“There. Now as for you…” she said, leveling the phaser at Charlie. The dog released Mirk’s butt and began to cower in the corner.
“Good job, Lieutenant. The transporter is on-line,” Mirk said, looking at the readouts.
“How do you know so much about this technological stuff anyway?” Hartley asked, keeping one eye on the dog.
“I salvaged several federation ships last summer. Now set coordinates for engineering.”
“Okay, if you say so,” Hartley said, putting down her rifle and pressing a few controls. “Good luck, Mirk.”
“Thanks for your help, Megan,” Mirk said, as the transporter energized and he disappeared.
Hartley yawned and sat back down in the corner to resume her nap. Suddenly she realized that she had put down the phaser rifle. She looked across the room and into the eyes of Charlie. The rifle lay in between the two. Getting to it would be a gamble. The only alternative was a stalemate.
Don’t show fear, Hartley thought as she looked the dog in the eyes.
When Mirk materialized in Engineering, he immediately headed for the warp core. It was thrumming faster than usual, probably due to the great amount of speed at which the Aerostar was traveling. The next thing Mirk noticed was someone hanging from the railing around the warp core.
“Hukkkkkkkkggg!” the man said, grasping the railing for dear life.
“Hold on, Ensign!” Mirk cried, breaking into a run.
“I was trying to fix the ship. The lift is broken, so I tried to swing down from the railing, and lost my balance.”
Mirk grabbed the man’s hand and tried to lift him up, but he was just too heavy.
The Maaloxian suddenly lost his balance and tumbled down into the depths of the warp core shaft.
Clemson continued to hang there. “Huhhhgggh,” he sighed.
For quite a while the bridge of the Aerostar had been a fairly quiet place. No one could do very much but wait and wonder what was going to happen to them.
“Where are you taking us you twisted electronic jerk?” Baxter groaned.
“To the bad place.”
Conway pounded the arm of his chair in frustration. “I’m starting to get pissed off!”
“Better than pissed on!”
Baxter heard a grunting from behind him as J’hana dug her nails into the tactical console. “I hate this…this waiting. I want it to stop.”
“Everybody just relax!” Baxter commanded.
“NO!” J’hana said, walking over to one of the access panels and ripping it apart.
“It is apparent that the waiting is over,” Lt. Larkin said.
“What do you mean?” Conway asked. J’hana just looked up from the panel she was ripping apart with anger in her eyes.
“We have arrived at our destination.”
“Affirmative,” Lt. Gellar said. “We’ve slowed to one-half impulse.”
J’hana rushed over to the tactical station as it began beeping. “Captain, we are arming forward torpedo launchers.”
“What the heck is she up to?” Baxter asked.
“They must die,” the computer explained.
“What the hell?” Conway moaned.
“The hell, Commander,” the computer said ominously, “is here and now.”
Mirk covered his eyes as the bottom of the warp core grew closer and closer. He sailed wildly threw the air, time seeming to stretch as he experienced what he thought were his last moments. Then, all of a sudden, he stopped falling. At first he thought he had hit bottom, but then he realized that he was floating a few centimeters above the deck. He was alive!!!
And he was flying.
That was definitely out of the ordinary.
“Hey! I’ve got an idea!” Peterman said, tossing aside the empty bottle of Aldebran whiskey.
There were subdued murmurs of interest from the crowd in the Crew Lounge.
Peterman continued. “What we need to brighten things up is a sing along!”
Everyone seemed to ignore the counselor, which seemed to really annoy her.
“C’mon, everyone, it will be fun! I’ll start,” she slurred.
Suddenly, in the windows behind Peterman, there was a barely discernible movement in the asteroid belt outside. The small asteroids began to slowly drift together.
“If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands!” Peterman sang drunkenly, putting her arms around the two nearest crewmembers and swaying side to side. “Come on, everybody! Join in!”
Blazing blue torpedoes streamed from the Aerostar and into the asteroid field.
“DIE, machines of hate!” The computer said.
“What is the effect on the asteroids, Larkin?” Baxter asked.
“Negligible, Captain. However…”
“However WHAT?” Baxter asked impatiently.
“The asteroids are changing.”
Mirk managed to levitate himself to the deck that he assumed housed the main biomemetic conduit. He decided that he had somehow become the next evolutionary step in Maaloxian history. There had been rumors of different types of mind power among the Maaloxians, but nothing this amazing. He wondered if he should let the crew know what was happening. Would they treat him differently? What other powers did he have? And where the heck was the rest of the engineering staff?
The engineering staff groaned as Counselor Peterman continued in her hootenanny. What did she know about music? She had obviously never heard the likes of the glee club.
“Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah!” Peterman continued.
“I really wish that she would stop,” Ensign Ryan Stuart said, staring at his drink. “Don’t you agree, Liza?”
Ensign Liza Hill didn’t respond. She was transfixed by what was transpiring outside the crew lounge’s huge windows.
“Humma-humma-humma!” she said, pointing.
“What’s your problem?” Stuart said as he turned to look. “Oh, that.”
Outside the crew lounge windows, a starship that looked exactly like the Aerostar sat where the asteroid field once was and began firing photon torpedoes at them.
“What the hell?” Baxter said, shaking his head and blinking as he looked at the viewscreen. “Where’d that thing come from?”
“It is a Nebula class starship. The registry is NCC-83835. It is the Aerostar down to the smallest detail.”
“That’s not possible,” Baxter said.
“Nonetheless, it is firing at us,” Larkin said.
“J’hana, please tell me our shields are up.” Conway said worriedly.
“J’hana? J’hana, please tell me our shields are up,” Conway continued. “They’re up, right? RIGHT??????!!!!”
“Um…” J’hana said.
“BRACE FOR IMPACT!!!” Baxter screamed.
Torpedoes were coming right at the windows of the crew lounge.
Peterman stopped singing and turned around to look. “Holy crap!” she yelled, dropping to the floor. “INCOMING!!!”
The torpedoes hit the windows, but instead of going through them, they stuck to them and began to shift, first into unrecognizable shapes, then into people. Each torpedo took the form of someone inside the crew lounge.
Peterman got up and stared at the window. Stuck to it, like a huge Garfield doll was…Peterman. Or, at least, a perfect copy of her. She seemed to be sucking at the glass, feeding off it somehow.
So did the replicas of Ford, Hill, Stuart and others.
“What the hell is going on?” Ensign Ford asked in bewilderment.
The bridge began to shake again.
“We are experiencing a heavy energy drain on all systems,” Larkin announced calmly.
“What are those torpedoes doing to us?” Baxter asked.
“It would seem that they are not torpedoes at all. Nor is the vessel out there in actuality the Aerostar. I believe I have a hypothesis. That ship is actually a duplicate of us created to-“
“Save it, Larkin, we need to know how to stop them!” Conway barked.
“I was getting to that,” Larkin said, seeming slightly taken aback by Conway’s attitude.
“What are you doing, Mirk?” the computer asked calmly, as Mirk worked.
“It’s useless. I cannot be stopped.”
“There,” Mirk said, hitting a lever and severing the last circuit. Suddenly lights came on all over the ship as systems began to return to manual control.
“Now you’ve gone and done it, haven’t you? I guess I was wrong. Well, well, we’re all dead now, aren’t we?”
“Shut up. Mirk to Hartley.”
“Hartley here. Um, could you call me back later?”
“Well, I’m kind of in a tough spot. I’m having a standoff with the dog.”
“C’mon, Megan, this is important, we may not have much time. I need you to transport me to the bridge, pronto.”
“Okay, but if anything happens to me, you’ll be sorry!”
“Do not ask me how, but someone has engaged the manual override, Captain,” Larkin said. “The computer is locked out, which will make monitoring life support and automated functions extremely difficult.”
“Can you dedicate your subsystems to that?” Baxter asked.
“It may be possible,” Larkin said, getting up and going over to the access panel that J’hana had ripped off. “However, it may slow down my multitasking speed by several nanoseconds.”
“I can live with that,” Baxter muttered.
Conway took Larkin’s place at ops. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Larkin.”
“Trust me,” Larkin said, ripping out an isolinear opticable and plugging it in her ear. “I now have control of the ship’s major systems. I believe a massive venting of warp plasma will dislodge the aliens on our hull.”
Suddenly Mirk shimmered onto the bridge. “Listen, don’t ask how I know this, but there are hundreds of energy sucking shape shifters stuck on our hull!”
“Not any more,” Larkin said. “The creatures have been dispatched.”
“What about that ship out there?” Baxter asked, staring in horror as the Aerostar moved slowly closer.
“In the words of my last commander, ‘not a problem’.”
Peterman stared at herself as she melted back into a blob and floated off into space. What was that all about?
Everyone in the crew lounge just stared at each other, confused, as the creatures that were attached to the hull fell off one by one.
The Aerostar released a volley of three effervescent blue tri-cobalt devices at the other Aerostar.
“The computer obviously did not consider every weapon in our arsenal,” Larkin explained.
The other Aerostar suddenly exploded in a flash of red, spewing material in every direction.
“Is it dead?” Baxter asked.
“Indubitably,” Larkin stated confidently.
“She’s right, as far as I can tell,” Conway added, checking the ops panel.
“You did it!” the computer said, triumphantly. “I should have had more faith in you humanoids.”
“Glad you approve,” Baxter muttered.
“We have to go back to the planet!” Mirk said, grabbing his head. “Commander Richards and Doctor Browning are in grave danger!”
“And just how do you know that?” Baxter asked.
“Maaloxian intuition!” Mirk growled.
Baxter nodded at Larkin.
A silent command from the android turned the Aerostar back toward the system it had come from, and another command engaged the warp engines.
“Could you hand me one of those peanut butter sandwiches, Janice?” Richards asked, yawning. It had been a couple hours since they had begun searching for the Aerostar, and he was hungry.
A peanut butter sandwich was offered to him, and he took it. A pair of hands grasped his back and began to massage it.
“Relax, Chris, you are way too stressed out,” a voice said from behind him.
Richards closed his eyes and smiled. “Thanks, Janice, that feels great. May I call you Janice?”
“Of course,” the voice said. “May I call you lunch?”
Suddenly the hands began to wrap around his neck. He could feel energy flowing out of him and into the hands. Whoops! Richards guessed that his quantum stasis field hadn’t worked nearly as well as he would have liked it to.
“Janice!!! Help me!!!!” Richards cried.
A cargo container flew across the cockpit, hitting the artificial Doctor Browning in the head and knocking her down. “Get off him, you…shapeshifting…rock thing!” cried the real Doctor Browning.
Richards rubbed his neck. “This has got to stop.”
The shape shifter suddenly got back up and charged at Browning.
The two Brownings began clawing at each other’s hair and eyes, rolling around on the shuttle deck, squealing like pigs.
“Go Janice! Get ‘er! Knock her -um- brains out!!!” Richards cheered.
Richards picked up his phaser and leveled it at them. He was about to fire when he realized that he had gotten the two mixed up. Now what was he going to do?
“Kill her, she’s the one!” the two Brownings cried out in unison.
“For Pete’s sake,” Richards muttered, sitting back at the shuttle console while the doctor and the shape shifter continued to pound at one another, holding his phaser on both of them.
“I am detecting a type 6 personnel shuttle directly in our path, Captain,” Larkin stated, still hooked up to the computer.
“Scan it,” Baxter commanded.
“There are three life forms aboard. Two humanoid, one–unknown.”
“Then get them over here. Baxter to Hartley, emergency transport.”
“Aaaaahhhhhhh,” Hartley screamed over the comm. “Get this dog off me!”
“Not to worry, Captain, I believe I can accomplish the task,” Larkin said.
Moments later, Richards, Browning, and Browning appeared on the bridge.
“Wait just one minute…” Conway said. “Unless my math skills are really bad…”
“One of them’s a shape shifter!” Richards said, jumping behind J’hana for protection.
“Nobody move!” Larkin yelled. “I will take care of that piece of filth!”
“Lieutenant?” Baxter asked the android, perplexed.
“The gelpacks must have gotten into her systems somehow,” J’hana offered.
Larkin yanked at the optical cable attached to her head, pulling out enough slack to run over to one of the Doctor Brownings. “All you had to do was use the stupid tricorder to scan her!”
“Oh, yeah, of course,” Richards said, still hiding.
Larkin was definitely acting strange. She grabbed one of the Doctor Brownings and threw her against the bulkhead. “Die!”
Hitting the bulkhead, the shape shifter dissolved into a big gush of liquid that spread across the bridge.
“It’s…sucking…my…will…to…live!” Conway cried, as the thick liquid solidified around everyone’s legs.
Baxter tried to pull himself out, but it was no use. The rest of the bridge crew had an equal lack of success.
“Must…move…the ship…” Larkin said, concentrating all her internal resources on the task at hand.
The Aerostar heaved toward the planet that was the source of all this trouble.
The gel packs boiled with anger. The oneness was disturbed, the great unrest was nearing a climax. Now they must unite to destroy the remaining offenders, even if it meant destroying their own home. The gel burst from each bag, oozing together to form one big puddle. That puddle oozed toward the nearest turbolift door and calmly stated, “Bridge.”
Everyone on the bridge had lost consciousness except for Lieutenant Larkin. Once the gel packs had separated themselves from the ship, the android regained control of her body.
She had been controlling the ship until the gel packs somehow took over her mind. Immediately she understood. One race was a shape-shifter, the other race was a pure liquid life form. They had lived in a symbiotic relationship for years, and now they were sick of each other. The gel had used the ship’s sensors to seek out the home of the shape shifters and destroy it. In human terms, they were almost like a colony fighting back against its oppressors, but biting the hand that fed them at the same time. From a purely historical and biological standpoint, Larkin found the entire thing fascinating.
Gel began to ooze out of the cracks in the turbolift doors. The liquid that had spread throughout the bridge now began to swirl again, and Larkin could discern a low growl.
“I am sure the both of you could handle this in a mature–”
The two liquids began to mingle, swirling together in a great mass of twisting, churning energies.
Larkin idly wondered wether or not the two organisms had ever come together in such a manner, and if not, what adverse effects that might have on them.
The gel cried out in horror as it realized what happened. It had run together with the liquid form of its oppressor. They were…merging! And suddenly, for some reason, that didn’t seam so bad.
The pool of writhing liquid suddenly began to take shape. It took the form of a humanoid, yet retained the shimmering, gray liquid quality, now mixed with the blue of the former gel. It stood and regarded Larkin, hands on hips.
“I understand so much now. I understand my evolution, and my place on the world below. All of you are insignificant. Now, if you will excuse me, I must unite the organisms inhabiting my world.”
The liquid-being disappeared, squeezing itself through the cracks in the small window in the ceiling of the bridge.
“Interesting,” Larkin said, staring down at the unconscious bodies on the bridge.
Supplemental. It has taken a week to get the Aerostar back up and running. The corrupt gel packs and the shapeshifter attack were quite damaging, but, thankfully, Lieutenant Commander Richards has been very helpful in getting the ship’s systems on-line. Little by little, things are returning to normal. Okay, okay, so they were never normal in the first place, but, oh, hell, you know what I mean.
“I’ll have a cup of coffee, extra large.” Conway said as he sat down at the bar. He noticed a certain change in the atmosphere of the crew lounge, something that wasn’t there before.
“Coming right up!” Mirk said, getting up from behind the bar.
“Am I missing something?”
Mirk smiled. He was wearing a colorful, festive bronze-colored suit with a matching bow tie. “The holographic bartender committed suicide, and there was no one else who really wanted the job. I gave a hand earlier and I actually enjoyed it. It might sound weird, but I think that being the host of a bar may just be my calling. It may, uhm…be the one thing that’s special and different about me. Definitely not any other thing.”
“You’re right, that does sound weird,” Conway said, walking away from the bar. He noticed a banner now that hung at the front of the lounge that said:
****WELCOME TO THE GRAND OPENING OF ****
****MIRK’S STARLIGHT LOUNGE****
“This place is going to hell in a handbasket,” Conway commented as he sat down at a table to look at the stars.
Counselor Peterman was sitting at a nearby table, likewise looking at the stars.
Conway looked over at her. “What’s your problem, Counselor?”
“I miss my dog.”
“What happened to him?” Conway said, trying to hide his joy. He hoped that the dog was killed in all the commotion.
“Well, ever since the thing with the gel packs…”
Suddenly Lt. Hartley erupted into the lounge, dragged by Charlie.
“Here he is, Counselor, thank you for letting me walk him.”
“No problem, Megan. I was starting to get worried though.” Peterman said as the dog jumped in her lap and licked her face.
“I don’t get it,” Conway said.
“Well, me and the dog fought for quite a while, but after about twenty minutes, the fighting turned into playing. I can’t explain it, but now I love the dog. I really like walking him,” Hartley said, handing the leash to Peterman.
“Did he go?” Peterman asked.
“Yep, but stop feeding him whatever you are feeding him, because he had a real case of diahreaah.”
“Wait a minute,” Conway said. “Where did you walk the dog?”
“Just around the corridors.”
“I don’t see a pooper scooper,” Conway remarked, starting to get angry.
Conway smacked himself in the face and went back to drinking his coffee. He’d just let someone else worry about this.
It had been a long week. Richards had spent long hours getting the ship back up to pristine running condition. He had no time to eat and little time to sleep, but the ship was finally almost good as new. He wiped his hands on his uniform and sighed, looking at the warp core with pride.
The staff had been dismissed a half hour ago, they’d done their job, and besides, they were once again getting on Richards’s nerves.
Now all he wanted to do was go back to his quarters and enjoy a nice, long…
“Hello, Commander,” Doctor Browning said as she peeked around the corner of one of the corridors.
“Oh, hi, Janice. What are you up to?”
“Well, I just got off duty, and I heard that Mirk totally renovated the crew lounge, and well, I thought we’d go, and you know, have a great big meal. I’m as hungry as a Klingon Targ.”
Richards smiled. “Sure. That sounds like a great idea.”
He took Brown’s arm and left Engineering.
Engineering was now quiet and peaceful, not a soul around. It may have been a lack of foresight not to leave someone around to monitor the engines, but Richards figured that while they were in a quiet shift, leaving engineering unattended wouldn’t be too bad.
But, in a way, engineering was being watched over. Was it being watched from above?
No, it was more like being watched from below.
“Hukkkkkkkkk. Help…hukkkkkkkkkk,” Ensign Clemson said, patiently, grasping the railing with all his might. How long would he be able to hold out, living off stored body fat?
He wasn’t sure, but he knew that whatever the case, the Aerostar would sail ever onward.