Author: Alan Decker
STAR TRAKS: WAYSTATION
“Collectibles - Part One”
By Alan Decker
A week of travel, and all they’d come across was a big fat nothing. Not that Jibbek expected anything else. There was nothing beyond the Multek Enclave. That was kind of the point. Why Frequoq Wuddle had thought sending him and Leedo out here was a good idea was beyond him. A century earlier, the great explorer Weeble (who their ship was named after) had established that nothing lay outside the Enclave. It was Weeble who set the boundaries for the Enclave. He even established the first structures on Edgeworld, setting the stage for the resort that would be founded there later on.
But now the ship named for Weeble was speeding through a whole bunch of nothing, taking Jibbek and Leedo nowhere fast. Sure Jibbek felt a little bit of pride in going farther than any Multek had gone before, but he was glad that Frequoq Wuddle’s orders said they could turn back tomorrow. Who wanted to wander around space when there was so much fun to be had on Multos?
“It’s today,” Leedo muttered unhappily from the Weeble’s co-pilot’s seat.
“What’s today?” Jibbek asked, grateful for any distraction to pull him away from the vast black nothing outside of the ship.
“Opening Day at Cheerful Cascades. They’re supposed to have five new slides this year,” Leedo replied. “And they added a nighttime holoshow in the wave pool.”
“Really? I hadn’t heard. I’ll have to take a trip down to Multeria when we get back.”
“Good luck getting a room. I think all the hotels have been books for months.”
“I could just take the zip-e-liner down for a day.”
“Is a day really enough time?” Leedo said. “It’s five new slides AND a holoshow.”
“Oooh. Good point.”
“You could stay with me. I’m just a Quickie Travel Tram ride away from the park.”
“You have room?”
“My couch folds out to a vibrabed.”
“That would work.” Jibbek said thoughtfully. “When we get back, we’ll have to set something up. Maybe we could even head over to…”
Jibbek’s suggestion was interrupted by a very unexpected beeping from the ship’s main console.
“What is that?” Leedo asked confused.
“I’m not sure,” Jibbek replied, checking the readouts. “It’s the proximity alert,” he added surprised. “Something is headed this way.”
“Way out here? Is it a rogue asteroid or comet or something?”
“I don’t think so. It’s too big. I think it’s…”
“What?” Leedo asked impatiently.
“I think it’s a ship.”
“That’s impossible. No one except us would be out this far. No one with any sense anyway.”
“It’s slowing,” Jibbek said, peering out the ship’s front viewport as a massive vessel slowed to sublight in front of them. Leedo shook his head as he looked out at the huge black ship to fore, which was made up of several oval segments connected in a line like some kind of giant mutant bug.
“I’m imagining this,” Leedo said finally.
“You’re right. We’ve just been out here too long, and it’s messing with our minds. We’re just pretending there’s a huge ship out there. I’m just going to keep flying until it disappears.”
“Good. That’s exactly what we should do.” The pair was silent for a few moments as the newcomer vessel took up a position along side them, matching their speed. “Um…are we imagining that, too?” Leedo asked, pointing at the incoming comm light that had just started blinking.
“I’m not sure. Probably.”
“Should we answer it?”
“That would be giving in to our hallucination,” Jibbek said firmly.
“What if we have to give into it to make it go away?”
“Oh…good point. We’ll answer it then.” Jibbek tapped the control. “Hel…hello?” he said tentatively. A humanoid figure clad completely in black including a shiny black helmet covering his entire head appeared on the small monitor in the console.
“Interesting ship,” the helmeted figure said. “We don’t have one of those. We don’t have any of you either.”
Jibbek and Leedo looked at each other in confusion. “What are we supposed to say to the pretend man in the imaginary helmet?” Leedo asked.
“I don’t know. You’re the one who wanted to answer the comm,” Jibbek replied.
“I thought it would make them go away.”
“Well, it didn’t! Try something else.”
Leedo looked into the monitor. “Would you please go away, Mister Imaginary Person In Black? We’re kind of jebelleked out over here.”
Obligingly, the helmeted figure closed the channel.
“That’s wasn’t so hard,” Leedo said, smiling triumphantly.
That’s exactly when he and Jibbek dematerialized.
WAYSTATION TWO DAYS LATER
Lieutenant Commander Craig Porter was just finishing off the last of his fish and chips at Victoria’s Pub when a steely hand clamped down on his shoulder from behind.
“Is beer Starfleet’s lunch beverage of choice?” an all-too-familiar female voice asked accusingly. Joan Redding released her grip on Porter’s shoulder, then took a seat at his table, a broad grin spreading across her face. “Hey there.”
“Afternoon,” Porter choked. Her sudden arrival had startled him enough to get the last bit of fish stuck in his throat. He finally swallowed hard, clearing the obstruction. “Care to join me? Oh wait, you already did.”
“Looks like it. So what’s good here?”
“Just about everything…if you like English food.”
“Why does that have me concerned?”
“It’s not to everyone’s taste,” Porter replied. “So where’s your big story today?”
“Arriving this evening, from what I’ve heard.”
Porter blanched. She knew already?
“So Frequoq Wuddle is coming tonight,” Redding said, taking the look on Porter’s face as confirmation.
“Yes, but you can’t interview him, okay? I don’t want to have to sic Yeoman Jones on you again.”
“I don’t know, Craig. The Multeks are news. My viewers don’t know much about them at all, and an exclusive interview with the Frequoq could clear up a lot of misconceptions.”
“And possibly get Wuddle deposed as Frequoq in the process. I don’t think so,” Porter said.
“But this whole thing is ridiculous. The Multek government knows life exists outside of the Enclave. They intercept our holovision signals, and their leader is dating our doctor. All Starfleet’s doing is assisting the Multek government in lying to its people.”
“That’s not my call to make. The Multek higher-ups who know we exist want to keep it a secret from the people, Wuddle wants to keep his contact with us secret from the other Multek higher-ups, and we’re bound by the Prime Directive to support those decisions. Now will you promise me that you won’t try to get close to Wuddle this time?”
“Well…” Redding said slowly. “I don’t know. I am a reporter. Maybe if there was something else to distract me…”
“Distract you? Like what?” Porter asked confused.
“Maybe if I was doing something else during Wuddle’s visit.”
It took a few moments, but Porter finally caught the drift of where this was going. “Er…would dinner be distracting?”
Redding smiled. “It could be.”
“Pick you up at seven?”
“I think I can fit you in,” Redding said, getting up from her chair. “See you at seven,” she added then sashayed out of Victoria’s, drawing Porter’s gaze involuntarily to her retreating posterior.
A few moments later, Lieutenant Sean Russell entered the pub and spotted Porter. “How’s it going, Craig?” he asked, taking the chair Redding had just vacated.
“I think I just got extorted into a date,” Porter said.
“And that’s a problem?”
“No. I don’t think it is,” Porter replied. Sure Joan Redding could be something of a pirana when she wanted to be, but she was attractive. Besides, she seemed to like him, and he hadn’t had a real date in ages. This could be fun.
“Quiet day, Commander?” Captain Lisa Beck asked as she emerged from the turbolift into Ops to start her shift.
“Except for the expected arrival this evening, yes,” Commander Walter Morales replied, looking up from his usual position at the docking control console.
“Good.” Beck surveyed Ops for a moment, then sighed. “I guess I have nothing to prevent me from reviewing Russell’s security and tactical reports, huh?”
“I’m afraid not,” Morales said, heading toward the turbolift. “Is there a problem with them?”
“Lately he’s gotten…flowery in his writing.”
“In the last set, it took him a screen and a half to state that Ensign Waits reported a broken lock on the entrance to Nandegar’s Secret.”
“Do you want me to say something to him about it?”
“Um…no. It’s fine. If he wants to put that kind of effort into his reports, that’s his prerogative. It just means more for me to read. Have a good evening, Commander.”
“You as well,” Morales said, stepping into the lift. “Oh, I’ve excused Porter from this evening’s event,” he added.
“Why is that?”
“He will be with Joan Redding.”
“Ahh.” That meant Redding wouldn’t be trying to get to Wuddle. Very clever of Porter, Beck thought.
“I will see you later then,” Morales said.
“That you will,” Beck replied. Frequoq Wuddle had requested to meet with Waystation’s command crew when he arrived, which was unusual. It also meant that Morales would have to spend some of his off hours in a conference room with the Multek leader.
The lift doors closed, effectively ending the conversation. Beck took one last look around Ops, hoping for some sign from one of the crew that a situation was in the offing. When none came, she steeled herself for a long night of reading and made her way to her office. No sense in procrastinating any longer. The reports weren’t going to go away by themselves.
Beck stepped into her office and immediately found herself face to face with Bradley Dillon.
“Geeaaggggh!” she exclaimed involuntarily, startled by the unexpected visitor.
The Federation President smiled slightly. “Good afternoon, Captain.”
“What are you doing in here?” Beck demanded. “How did you even get in?”
“Transporter,” Bradley replied, strolling over to the couch and taking a seat. “It keeps my movements inconspicuous and reduces the need for security to follow me around.”
Great, Beck thought, taking a seat at her desk. Now he can beam in whenever he wants. Wonderful.
“As for why I’m here,” Bradley continued, leaning forward and looked intently at Beck. “When were you planning on telling me?”
“Telling you? If you don’t know why you’re here, how am I supposed to know enough to tell you?”
“You know what I mean, Captain. Our visitor.”
“What about him?” Beck asked. “It’s Frequoq Wuddle. He comes here fairly often to see Doctor Nelson.”
“Yes, but this is his first visit since I became President. We have the leader of a foreign power visiting this station, and I should be informed. I want to meet with him.”
“This isn’t a summit, Bradley.” Despite his position in the Federation, there was only so many times Beck could call Bradley “Mister President” before she lost it. “Wuddle just asked to meet with a few members of the command crew.”
“Which implies that he intends for this to be a business visit. All the more reason I demand to be present, and considering my position I shouldn’t have to demand this at all. Now then, I will be at the meeting, and when Wuddle’s ship arrives it will be met with a proper honor guard. That means dress uniforms for everyone.”
Beck fiddled with her ear for a moment, taking some time to calm down before replying in even, measured tones. “Frequoq Wuddle has specifically asked that his visits are kept quiet, low-key affairs. He doesn’t want any attention drawn to them. Sending out an honor guard in full dress uniforms seems to me to be the exact opposite of low-key. With all due respect, I suggest that we follow the Frequoq’s wishes.”
“Very well,” Bradley said after mulling over Beck’s words for a moment. “Honor guards are impressive, though. Wuddle doesn’t know what he’s missing.”
“I think he’ll live. Was there anything else?”
“Not for the moment,” Bradley said, rising from the sofa and pulling a small white cylinder out of his suit coat. “I’ll expect you all in the Presidential Briefing Room after Wuddle arrives.” He lifted the cylinder to his mouth. “Office,” he said, then dematerialized in a cascade of particles, leaving Beck wondering if she could possibly have her office shielded against unauthorized presidential transports.
At 1855 Lieutenant Commander Porter found himself pacing a short distance down the corridor from Joan Redding’s quarters. Why was he so nervous? This was basically just a mission like any other. In this case, his mission was to take Joan Redding to dinner so she wouldn’t interfere with the meeting with Frequoq Wuddle. No big deal.
Then why was he pacing the floor? And why did his stomach feel like it was about to leap out of his mouth and make a break for the turbolift?
Who was he kidding? He knew the answers. As much as he really didn’t want to admit it, he was excited about tonight. Joan was an attractive woman, and she’d most definitely shown an interest in him. Tonight could be the beginning of something, not that he wanted to think that way. He didn’t want to jinx it.
Why the hell wasn’t it 1900 hours yet?
Finally he decided enough time had passed. If he was a little early, big deal. He ordered his stomach to calm itself then strode up to Redding’s door and rang the chime.
The door slid open a few moments later revealing Redding. She was dressed in a casual light blue blouse and flowing navy skirt. She looked…great. Porter was so used to seeing her in her usual suits that he didn’t have a sense of what she would be like relaxed. She certainly seemed to be a far cry from the woman who’d once practically kidnapped a Multek to get a look at the Enclave.
“You’re prompt,” Redding said with a smile.
“Must be that Starfleet training,” Porter replied hiding any sign of nerves.
“So where are you whisking me off to?”
“Have you checked out Earthly Eats yet?”
“What’s that?” Redding asked confused. “Where’s that?”
“It’s new. A couple of Bolians opened it down on Deck 97 last week. I think few more restaurants are supposed to be coming in there soon.”
“Why all the way down there?”
“Bradley Dillon is renovating that casino we discovered down there a while ago, so they figure it should be a good spot for business once Bradley’s place opens. Plus this way Ih’mad won’t have them killed. So far Bradley’s been the only one willing to open a full service restaurant in the mall, and even he had trouble with the Andorians for a while.”
“Okay. But why are we eating Earth food fixed by Bolians?”
“You obviously haven’t been around Grout and Mitt too much. They’re nuts about Earth culture. A lot of Bolians are. My former captain used to perform some of their versions of Elvis songs. Wild stuff.”
“I didn’t realized you ever served under a Bolian.”
“Oh, he wasn’t Bolian. He was just really into Elvis.”
“But you’re going to love this food. I promise. They’ve got an amazing Kung Pao ravioli.”
“Why does that frighten me?” Redding replied hesitantly.
“What? You don’t like Italianese food?” Porter asked with a grin. He was already feeling more relaxed.
“I guess I’m going to find out,” Redding said, hooking her arm into Porter’s and heading off down the corridor with him.
The pair strolled into the restaurant a few minutes later, and Porter almost lost his balance as Redding came to abrupt halt. “Oh good lord what happened in here?” she said.
“What do you mean?” Porter said, looking around. Earthly Eats looked exactly as it had the last time he visited. Every table had a little Eiffel Tower surrounded by a miniature Great Wall of China as a center piece resting on table cloths depicting maps of the Earth. The walls were covered with murals of New York, San Francisco, London, Hawaii, Beijing, and a few other cities Redding couldn’t identify immediately. Actually, it was hard to identify any of them, since the landmarks had all been thrown together into one hideous megalopolis. Where else could you see the Great Pyramid rising above Big Ben?
A Bolian waitress, Grout’s daughter if Porter remembered correctly, approached dressed as the Statue of Liberty complete with clutched tablet. “Good evening, Earthlings,” she said warmly. “Two for dinner?”
“Yes. Thanks,” Porter said. He and Redding followed the waitress to a small table in a corner of the restaurant and took their seats.
“Our special tonight is a fresh Shepherd’s Borscht, and the soup of the day is Mongolian Onion. Can I start you off with something to drink?”
“Do you have any more of that Lebanese iced tea?” Porter asked.
“Yes we do.”
“I’ll have that.”
“And you ma’am?”
“Water,” Redding replied firmly. “Just water.”
The waitress left and returned moments later with their drinks. After taking Porter’s order of the barbecued flounder and Redding’s hesitant request for the Kung Pao ravioli, she returned to the kitchen again, leaving Porter and Redding alone to talk.
“Having fun yet?” Porter asked with a nervous laugh.
“Maybe,” Redding replied. “This place is certainly unique.”
“I thought so. I didn’t want to take you anywhere boring.”
“I’d never accuse you of that,” she said. She stopped and looked deep into his eyes. “We need to talk about something.”
“What’s that?” Porter asked almost choking on his tea.
“You and me.”
“What about us?”
“I’m not blind, Craig. I know what’s going on.”
“Nope. I want to hear you say it.”
“How you feel about me?”
“Er…” Porter stammered. Did it suddenly get twenty degrees warmer in there? “Feel?”
“Stop parroting my questions back to me. I’m not letting you squirm out of this one,” Redding said.
“Okay. Well…I…” Porter took another long drink of his tea. “I find you attractive,” he said quickly.
“And…and…I want to date you?”
Redding smiled. “There. That wasn’t so difficult. I just needed to hear you say it.”
“What about you?” Porter asked.
“What about me?”
“How do you feel…about me?”
“I accepted your dinner invite, didn’t I?”
“Well, yes,” Porter said. And you brought it up in the first place, Porter added to himself.
“That should tell you all you need,” Redding said, patting Porter’s hand.
“Yes, it does,” he replied. Inside he wasn’t so sure. Actually, he wasn’t sure what the hell had just happened, but it hadn’t ended with her excusing herself and storming off, so he’d probably done okay. Now maybe he could relax and enjoy the rest of the evening.
Dr. Amedon Nelson could tell something was weighing on Frequoq Wuddle’s mind as soon as she saw him disembark from his small craft that was now stowed away in one of Waystation’s docking bays and under unobtrusive guard. Captain Beck’s basic philosophy on Wuddle’s visits was to keep them as secret as possible without doing anything to tip anyone off that anything secret was actually going on. So far, other than a small problem with Joan Redding a year earlier, things had gone fairly smoothly, so Nelson doubted that the issue on Wuddle’s mind had anything to do with his travel arrangements. Of course, the fact that he’d requested to meet with the command staff was another big tip-off.
“What’s wrong?” she asked as soon as they’d completed their hello hugs.
“I’d rather explain it to everyone at once,” Wuddle replied distractedly as he walked with Nelson out of the docking bay and across the corridor into a waiting turbolift.
“Presidential Complex,” Nelson ordered, drawing a look of confusion from Wuddle.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“President Dillon invited himself to our meeting,” Nelson said with a sigh. “He evidently wants to be all diplomatic or something. There wasn’t anything Captain Beck could do.”
“I suppose I should have expected this as soon as you told me he’d been elected.”
“He wasn’t elected,” Nelson retorted quickly as the turbolift slowed to a stop. “Don’t ever forget that.”
“Should I be concerned that he wants to be there?”
“Probably not. But if he tries to get you to sign anything, don’t. He may have gotten some ideas from the Romulans.”
“What ideas? What Romulans?”
“Never mind,” Nelson said, taking Wuddle by the hand and walking him out into the corridor where a pair of Bradley’s Special Secret Section guards were standing watch in front of the conference room door, wearing matching navy blue suits and scowls. As Nelson and Wuddle approached, the guards simultaneously pulled out tricorders and scanned them, then, nodding silently, activated the doors.
“What’s the matter, fellas?” Nelson asked. “Couldn’t Bradley afford to buy you personalities?”
“Should you be taunting them?” Wuddle whispered nervously.
“Why not?” Nelson replied with a smile. “I’m dating the leader of a foreign power. If Bradley does anything to me, he risks pissing you off. I think I can pretty much do whatever I want. Frankly, that’s the only thing making this meeting palatable.”
“Ah. As long as you’re happy,” Wuddle said, walking into the conference room with Nelson.
President Dillon, Captain Beck, Commander Morales, and Lieutenant Russell were standing at the rear of the room around a small refreshment spread engaging in awkward conversation judging by the looks of relief that washed over the command crews’ faces when Nelson and Wuddle arrived.
“Frequoq…” Beck began.
“Frequoq Wuddle, it is a pleasure to see you again,” President Dillon said, speeding past Beck and grabbing the Multek’s hand in a welcoming hand shake.
“Er…hello,” Wuddle said uncomfortably. Diplomatic meetings with other governments with a bit out of Wuddle’s range of experience, since, officially, the Multeks didn’t believe that any other governments existed.
“Can I offer you a drink before we begin?”
“I think he’d rather just get on with it,” Nelson said, taking a seat at the conference table.
Beck chuckled softly. “That makes…well…all of us,” she muttered, quickly following Nelson’s lead. Within moments, Bradley was the only one left standing.
“Ah,” Bradley said taking a seat at the head of the conference table. “Well…we can begin the meeting.”
“Thank you so much, Mister President,” Beck said with as much mock gratitude as she felt she could get away with before it slipped over the line into condescension. “So what brings you out this way, Frequoq?”
Wuddle opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off by President Dillon before he could even get a word out.
“Please excuse, Captain Beck, your Frequoqness,” Bradley said, showing that he’d done his homework by invoking the appropriate form of address. “Meetings such as these are somewhat out of her realm.”
To her credit, Beck did not immediately leap down the table and throttle Bradley, nor did anyone else on the command crew; although, from the glances they exchanged, it was obvious that they were all considering it.
Unaware that he’d just angered most of his audience, Bradley continued. “On behalf of the United Federation of Planets, I would like to welcome you to Waystation. I sincerely hope that this meeting will be the beginning of a new era of relations between our cultures. Of course, we would never dream of imposing ourselves on the Multek Enclave; however, should you decide that you desire a closer relationship with the Federation, we will be more than happy to oblige. The commerce opportunities alone are staggering, not to mention the cultural and scientific benefits to be had from formal exchanges.”
“I really just need a ship,” Wuddle said before Bradley could dive into what was undoubtedly the next of many many paragraphs of prepared politi-speak.
“A ship?” Beck asked.
“And some members of your crew.”
“That is a highly unusual request,” Bradley said, reasserting control of the meeting. “However, I am sure that we can discuss the situation and see what the Federation can do to assist you in whatever difficulty you have encountered.”
“Would you just shut up for two seconds and let the man speak?” Nelson snapped. “He came here for help. Not to listen to you babble.”
Bradley stared at Nelson in stunned silence for several moments, obviously shocked that anyone would dare speak to him this way.
“What’s happened, Wuddle?” Beck asked, focusing all of her attention on the Multek leader. Hopefully they could get Wuddle’s story underway before Bradley decided to attempt to make another speech.
“Nine days ago, a ship left the Multek Enclave headed into what you have called the Beta Quadrant. Very few people in the Enclave knew about this ship or its mission.”
“What was its mission?” Commander Morales asked.
“Exploration. As you know, my people don’t see any need for exploration, since the Multeks are the only beings in the universe.” Wuddle smirked slightly at this remark, then continued. “But knowing what I know, I thought it might be a good idea to get more of a sense of what, or who, is beyond our borders.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Beck said. “But I’m guessing something went wrong.”
“Honestly, I don’t know. I haven’t been able to contact the Weeble for two days now. I came to you because you have far more experience in this area than I do. Will you help me find out what happened?”
“Of course we will,” Nelson said, rubbing Wuddle’s arm. “Won’t we, Mister President.” That wasn’t so much a question as an assertion of fact.
“The Federation stands ready to assist you,” Bradley said, flashing a charismatic smile. “I can have Captain Beck take a ship out immediately.”
“No offense to you, Captain,” Wuddle said, pretty much ignoring Bradley. “But I feel the need to handle this myself. I sent those two men out, and I should be the one to get them back. I only want a ship, Commander Morales and Amedon.”
Bradley spoke up. “Surely Captain Beck would be a better choice. And Lieutenant Russell could provide tactical assistance.”
“Absolutely,” Russell said eagerly. “I’m more than ready to help you find your people. Just send me along, Captain.”
“Thank you, but I have worked with both Commander Morales and Doctor Nelson before,” Wuddle replied. “The Commander is an excellent pilot, and if my people are hurt, they will need a doctor.”
“Wouldn’t a Multek doctor be a better choice?” Bradley asked.
“That would mean telling them about the mission,” Wuddle said. “And if the crew of the Weeble have run into another species, I don’t think our doctors would be able to deal with the revelation that other life exists. As I said, I need people who are experienced at this sort of thing.”
“Commander, get the Cumberland prepped,” Captain Beck said. “You can leave as soon as you’re ready.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Wuddle said, with a bow of his head. “I knew I could count on you.”
“That’s what we’re here for,” Bradley said.
“I think we’re done here,” Beck said, rising from her chair. Wuddle and the Waystation command crew quickly filed out the door, leaving the President alone.
“Meeting adjourned,” he said to the empty room. Oh well. That just meant he wouldn’t have to share the bottle of ‘34 Chateau de Surak with anyone.
Captain Beck was more than a little surprised to see Marine Lieutenant Stephanie Hodges stepping out of a turbolift as the Waystation command crew and Frequoq Wuddle filed out of the conference room into the main corridor of the Presidential Briefing Center.
“Steph,” Beck said with a wave. Hodges waved back and joined the Starfleet officers as Bradley’s bodyguards continued scowling from a distance. “What are you doing here?”
“Colonel Lazlo wants me to pretend to assassinate President Dillon,” Hodges replied, looking less than thrilled. “He thinks it will convince the president to use marines as his bodyguards instead of the Secret Special Section.”
“Special Secret Section,” Lieutenant Russell said.
“But why send you?” Commander Morales asked. “You’re a pilot.”
“True, but Lazlo knows I won’t throw her in the brig,” Beck said.
“He does think occasionally,” Hodges said. “So is the president still in the conference room?”
“Yeah. He should be out in a minute. Would you wait with her, Morales?”
“Me?” Morales said. “Um…sure.”
“Good. I need to get back to Ops. Frequoq Wuddle, I’ll see you in the morning, I’m sure. Doctor Nelson can escort you to your quarters.”
“Er…actually, could you take him, Sean?” Nelson said. “I need to discuss something with the Captain. I’ll be along soon. We’ll get some dinner.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Wuddle said, kissing Nelson’s hand then following Lieutenant Russell into the turbolift.
“What did you want to talk to me about?” Beck asked.
“Not here,” Nelson said curtly.
“Ooooookay,” Beck said. Seconds later, the turbolift doors reopened revealing an empty car, which Nelson practically pushed Beck into.
“Hey!” Beck cried as the doors closed.
“Now we can talk,” Nelson said.
“Ops,” Beck ordered. “What’s so important that it’s got you assaulting a superior officer?”
“That wasn’t an assault. It was barely a push.”
“It was a full-on shove.”
“Amedon! What the hell is going on?”
“I…I need your advice on something.”
“I think this is a first.”
“And maybe a last if you don’t shut up and listen to me,” Nelson snapped.
“Okay. I’m sorry. What’s on your mind?” Beck said.
“It’s more a problem of what’s in my gut.”
“There’s a problem in your relationship with Wuddle?”
“Yeah. Midon,” Nelson said, pointing at her stomach. “What else is in my gut?”
“I thought you meant it in a figurative sense.”
“Why would I…never mind. Look, Wuddle still doesn’t know I’m joined with a symbiont, and I have no idea how to tell him without scaring the crap out of the poor guy. Multeks just can’t handle something like this.”
“He fell for you even though you’re an alien.”
“Yeah, but most of the time I think he’d be quite happy to bleach my skin, dye my hair blue, and whisk me off to live on Multos as his Snarkleberry.”
“Snarkleberry?” Beck asked, fighting a smirk.
“Long story. The point is that outwardly I’m humanoid. Wuddle can relate to that. I don’t think he can relate to a sentient slug in his girlfriend’s stomach that makes up half of her personality. But I have to tell him at some point. I can’t stand the idea that part of our relationship is built on a lie. He doesn’t really know who I am. I’ve just got to find a way to break it to him…without sending him fleeing in terror. What do you think?”
Beck thought for a few moments. “Honestly, I don’t think you’re giving him enough credit. Wuddle fell in love with Amedon Nelson, and Amedon Nelson is Amelia Nelson and Midon. Sure he may be a little freaked out at first, but really what does the symbiont matter to him? He never sees it. It’s just a part of who you are.”
“So you’re saying I should just tell him. Just like that.”
“Maybe over a romantic dinner. Get him calm and relaxed first,” Beck said.
“Then spring the slug on him. I like that,” Nelson replied.
“Maybe try something less like an ambush. There’s got to be some way to work it into conversation.”
“Oh sure. ‘Hi, dear. Sorry you lost those men. I’ve got a symbiont. Wanna go to bed?’ That should work great.”
“My advice doesn’t require sarcastic accompaniment,” Beck said.
“I know,” Nelson said, shaking her said. “I just…I don’t want to scare him off, Lisa.”
“You’ll find a way to tell him. And if he loves you as much as I think he does, he won’t care.”
“Okay. He’ll care. But I’m sure he’ll get over it.”
“Not feeling comforted here.”
“You only asked for advice. I charge for comfort.” Beck and Nelson froze for a second, then started laughing. “Wow, that came out wrong,” Beck said.
“That was…interesting,” Hodges said once Beck and Nelson’s turbolift had departed.
“I guess so,” Morales replied uncomfortably.
“Other than the fact that I’m a co-conspirator in a plot to mock-assassinate the President?”
“At least it’s just for pretend.”
“I’ll make sure I tell that to the judge.”
“Just relax, Morales. Lisa’s right. You are uptight.”
“She said that about me?” Morales asked.
“Not in so many words.”
“What did she say?”
“Nothing bad. You’re quiet. And generally reserved…when you’re not kissing her in the middle of life-or-death situations.”
Morales flinched. “She told you about that, huh?”
“She tells me everything. Just like I tell her everything. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with being quiet and reserved. That usually means you have more interesting things going on in your head that you just don’t feel like babbling about. I like that.”
The conference room doors finally slid open, and President Dillon stepped out, bottle of wine in hand.
“I’m going to my chambers,” Bradley said to his guards. “And I don’t require an escort.” He spotted Morales and Hodges and approached them before heading to the turbolift. “Was there something else that you needed, Commander?”
“I’m Lieutenant Stephanie Hodges, Federation Marine Corps,” Hodges said, grabbing Bradley’s hand in a rapid handshake with her right hand as her left subtly slipped into her uniform jacket pocket. In a flash, she pulled out a small cylinder and jabbed it into the President’s stomach.
“And if I were an assassin, you’d be dead right now,” Hodges continued. “Think about that next time these goons are following you around. This message brought to you courtesy of Colonel Martin Lazlo. Bye!”
Hodges grabbed Morales’s arm and yanked him into the turbolift just as the Special Secret Section guards rushed to Bradley’s side. “Well, that was fun,” Hodges said, her voice shaky. Morales’s mouth just opened and closed repeatedly as the commander tried to regain his composure. “You okay?”
“I know. I can’t believe I did it either. Thanks for helping me.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“But you were a big help.”
“Seriously. Don’t mention it,” Morales said, finally able to smile. “I don’t think presidential assassin is a good thing to add to my resume.”
FIVE DAYS LATER…
If it weren’t for the fact that they were supposedly on a life-or-death mission, Commander Morales would have sworn that he’d once again been shanghaied into chauffeuring Frequoq Wuddle and Dr. Nelson around the galaxy. The couple had spent most of the voyage stowed away in their cabin, leaving Morales to handle the piloting duties as the Runabout Cumberland skirted along the edge of the Multek Enclave at maximum warp on its race toward the last known coordinates of the Weeble. Fortunately, the Multek craft had taken a looping course befitting an exploratory vessel, allowing the Cumberland to catch up in a relatively short time.
It wasn’t short enough for Morales’s tastes, though. All the time alone had given him too much time to think, which usually led to bad things, most of the pining for Captain Beck variety. Much to his surprise, though, he hadn’t thought about her much at all this time. His mind had wandered from some painting ideas to possibilities of where to take his upcoming leave to his and Stephanie Hodges’ “attempt” on President Dillon’s life to rearranging the furniture in his cabin. He’d also spent a good deal of time wondering what the Weeble’s crew had gotten themselves into and trying not to pay attention to the various sounds coming out of Nelson and Wuddle’s room.
Morales checked their coordinates and gently brought the Cumberland out of warp into a void of open space. For better or worse, they had arrived. Now they just had to see if they could find anything.
“Morales to Nelson and Wuddle,” he said, activating the ship’s intercom. “I hope I’m not interrupting, but we’re here.” Actually, he didn’t care at this point if he was interrupting. They’d had more “alone time” in the last five days than he’d had in his entire life.
“We’ll…right there,” came Nelson’s harried reply.
True to their word, Nelson and Wuddle stepped into the runabout’s cockpit about five minutes later, which had given Morales plenty of time to observe the nothingness outside.
“Have you found anything?” Wuddle asked eagerly.
“Unfortunately, no,” Morales replied as Nelson slipped into the seat beside him and began poring over the scanners. She was no expert, but the readouts didn’t seem to show anything besides open space.
“We aren’t detecting any debris,” Morales said. “Which is a good thing. The only problem is that any ion or warp trails have long since dissipated. We can continue along this course to see if we run across anything. I’m not sure what else to suggest.”
“What about this?” Nelson said, pointing at a solar system on the edge of the long range sensors. “If they were in trouble, they may have tried to find a place to land.”
“They’re your men, Wuddle. What do you think they would do?” Morales asked.
“This is a bit out of our usual range of experience. We don’t really have procedures for what to do if you run into trouble outside of the Enclave. Inside, you can be assured that a ship will be along soon to help you.”
“We’ll take a look in the solar system then,” Morales said. “It shouldn’t be a long detour. If we don’t find anything, we’ll just resume course back here.” He punched in the new course and sent the runabout zooming toward the nearby system.
“I think there’s something here,” Nelson said a short time later, watching the sensors. “Those aren’t planets, are they?” she asked, pointing at the screen.
“No,” Morales replied. “Too small. It could be an asteroid field with a heavy ore content, or possibly ships of some kind.”
“Ships?” Wuddle said. “As in more than one?”
“Looks like it. They’re all congregated around the third and fourth planets of the system,” Morales said as the runabout passed the outer planets.
“I’m looking for lifesigns,” Nelson said. That was something she could do very well. “Hmm…I’m not getting much of anything. The planets are deserted and the ship…I think these are lifesigns. They’re all…odd.”
“What do you mean odd?”
“I’m not getting much in the way of variation. And I can’t seem to detect any distinct species…or get an exact count for that matter.”
“Well, let’s take a look. Hopefully they won’t mind visitors asking some questions. At the very least, they may have seen something,” Morales said, sending the runabout around the fourth planet toward the cluster of small vessels. There were about six in all over this world with five more working at the third planet. Something about the look of the ships seemed oddly familiar, but Morales didn’t place it until the sensors detected the massive black ship hovering equidistant between the planets.
“Oh hell,” he muttered.
“What?” Wuddle asked.
“Hang on to something,” Morales snapped back, suddenly sending the runabout into a dive and whipping the vessel back in the direction from which they’d come.
“What is it?” Nelson shouted.
“Collectors,” Morales said.
“I ran into them about a year ago. They take over planets, sell off everything of value, and enslave the population with mind control helmets.”
“Oh yeah. Those guys,” Nelson replied as Morales nervously watched the eleven smaller Collector ships assuming a pursuit course. “But you beat them.”
“Yes, but I had a marine detachment and a good engineer to help pull it off. Unless you can rig up some kind EM pulse generator to disrupt those helmets, we’re in big trouble.”
“Do you think they got my men?” Wuddle asked.
“It’s a good possibility,” Morales said. “I don’t think I can outrun these guys either.”
“May I take your chair, my dear?” Wuddle asked Nelson. “No offense to you, but I have spent more time behind the controls of spacecraft. If you’re about to take us into a fight, Commander, you’re going to need someone to handle the weapons.”
“The job’s yours,” Morales said. “I’m going to have to keep us in the system. In open space, we’re sitting ducks.”
“What do Earth waterfowl have to do with this?” Wuddle asked confused.
“Never mind. Doctor, get a message off to the station.”
“They won’t be able to get a ship here in time.”
“I know that, but they’ll at least know where we are and what’s happened to us. Who knows? We may get lucky.”
“All right,” Nelson sat down at the console behind Wuddle. “Hey. We’re being hailed.”
“Put it on,” Morales ordered. The small monitor on the wall to Morales’s left flashed on showing the image of a black helmeted Collector. “This is Commander Walter Morales of the United Federation of Planets. Please break off your pursuit of our ship.”
“I don’t think we have any of you,” the Collector replied.
“What does that mean?”
“Is the rest of that ship nicer than the cockpit or is your entire species without design sense?”
“Are you going to break off your pursuit or not?” Morales demanded, sending the runabout toward the rocky barren world at the outer edge of the system.
“No. We need to collect you. You’re new!”
“We don’t want to be collected. Thanks anyway.”
“It hardly matters.”
“That’s nowhere near as catchy as ‘Resistance is Futile’,” Nelson said.
“You’re not collecting us, and that’s final,” Morales said.
“We’ve heard that one before,” the Collector replied, sounding bored. “See you soon.” He then cut the channel.
“Send that message,” Morales said.
“On it,” Nelson replied.
“Wuddle, aft torpedoes. Launch three then a full spread. Detonate the three in front of the Collectors’ ships before the rest of the torpedoes arrive.” Wuddle followed the command, launching three torpedoes, which exploded in a blinding flash just ahead of the approaching Collectors. A split second later, the remaining torpedoes slammed into six of the ships while Morales darted behind the rocky planet and away from the Collectors as they scurried to regroup.
“That went well,” Wuddle remarked. “I believe we disabled three of their vessels.”
“They’ve got more,” Morales said flatly. Wuddle was about to reply when he spotted the four new sensor contacts heading their way from the inner planets as the remaining eight ships from the prior group closed from the rear.
“Any other ideas?” Nelson asked.
“Is anything Class M in this system.”
“Planets three and four,” Nelson replied, checking the sensors.
“Right where we don’t want to be.”
“Wait. There’s a moon around five that’s M.”
“I’ll take it,” Morales said. “If anything, we can ditch the runabout and maybe hide out until the cavalry arrives.” Morales slammed the runabout hard to port just as a blast seared past the starboard nacelle. The Collectors altered course as well, quickly closing the gap and laying into the rear of the runabout with weapons’ fire.
“Divert everything you can to the aft shields,” Morales ordered. “Hit them with every torpedo we have left.”
Dr. Nelson felt Midon squirm inside her. It was getting close to time for another does of unlogi, the symbiosis maintenance drug she had to take to keep them both alive. This didn’t exactly seem like the time to run to the back for a shot, though. It probably wasn’t the best time to tell Wuddle about Midon either. She’d just never gotten up the courage during the trip here and now…well now, as the Collector said, it hardly mattered.
The runabout jolted and bucked under the assault of several more Collectors’ blasts. “We’re losing the impulse drive,” Morales warned as the Class M moon loomed on the viewscreen.
“Will we make it?” Wuddle asked.
“We may be moving on inertia alone, but we’ll get there. Slowing us down enough to land may be a little tricky, though.”
“I have complete faith in your piloting skills. That is why I asked you to come.”
“I’m starting to wish I’d said no,” Morales said with a humorless chuckle.
Moments later, the runabout began its decent (more of a plummet really) toward the moon. Using the maneuvering thrusters, Morales flattened out their course and used the atmosphere to slow the craft down. Unfortunately, this was just the break the Collectors needed to catch up completely. Five of their ships were soon pacing them on all sides. Several beams lanced out of their undersides at the runabout.
“Tractor beams,” Morales said.
“Shields are holding,” Wuddle reported.
“But not anymore,” Wuddle said, checking the status display again as the effects of the Collectors’ shots subsided. An instant later, Morales felt control of the runabout being wrested from his hands as the Collectors’ tractor beams locked on and the ships dragged the Cumberland back into space.
“So much for that,” Nelson said.
Morales got up from his chair. “Let’s break out the phaser…”
The trio dematerialized before he got a chance to finish the sentence.
Colonel Martin Lazlo of the Federation Marine Corps stormed into Docking Bay One, his mustache twitching madly, as Lieutenant Stephanie Hodges jogged to keep up. Lazlo quickly spotted Captain Beck standing by the USS Wayward, supervising the launch preparations currently being made by Lieutenant Commander Porter and several other members of his engineering staff.
“What in the hell gives you the right to order ME down here?” Lazlo shouted furiously as Beck spun around to face the newcomers.
“We’re leaving,” Beck said. “And you’re coming with us.”
“You’ve lost your mind, Beck. The day I sit back and follow your order is the day…”
Lazlo froze. A slow smile spread across his face. “Now that’s different. Where are they?”
“Nowhere close, which is why we have to hurry. We’re fairly sure they have Commander Morales and Doctor Nelson as well as Frequoq Wuddle.”
“We’ll take the Mongoose,” Lazlo said. “I can have my entire force ready in an hour.”
“We may need them, but I’m not waiting that long. I want you, Hodges, and your ten best officers to come with us on the Wayward. We’re leaving in ten minutes. You can have the Mongoose follow, but we aren’t going to slow down for them.”
“The Collectors just took my best pilot, so I’m going to use yours. You think you can handle this thing, Steph.”
“After slugging around in the Mongoose, this is going to be like a star racer.”
“What about weaponry?” Lazlo asked.
“Bring as much as you like,” Beck said. “But we’re going to try not to kill anyone if we can avoid it. Those are just people that the Collectors have snatched under those helmets. Porter’s working on some electromagnetic pulse based weaponry, since that worked for you before, but he has no idea how long it’s going to take to get ready.”
Lazlo snorted. “We’ll bring our own ordinance. Porter’s good, but I don’t want to be caught empty handed if his stuff doesn’t work.”
“Fine by me,” Beck said.
“Really?” Lazlo said surprised.
“Yes. Get your people and your gear.” Beck turned back to the work being done on the Wayward. “Ten minutes, people!” she shouted as Lazlo and Hodges headed back toward the corridor.
“You handled that very well, sir,” Hodges said.
“Captain Beck’s orders.”
“The woman’s actually making sense for once,” Lazlo said. “If she wants us on the Wayward, that’s fine by me. It just means we get to the fight quicker. Now get your gear, Lieutenant.” Lazlo rushed off down the corridor, humming happily to himself. Frighteningly, this was the happiest Hodges had seen him in weeks.
After four days of pushing the Wayward’s engines to the absolute limit, the Starfleet vessel entered the solar system from where the Cumberland had sent its last message.
“Nothing so far on the sensors,” Porter reported as Hodges kept a close eye on her readouts. Captain Beck and Colonel Lazlo were both practically rocking in their seats, anxious for some sign of either the Cumberland or the Collectors.
“I’m not detecting any ships here at all,” Porter said a few moments later.
“Don’t tell me we came all this way for nothing,” Hodges said.
“I hope not. I missed several dinner dates with Phillip for this,” Beck said; although, she didn’t believe for a moment that this had been for nothing. Morales and Nelson wouldn’t have sent that comm unless they thought they were in deep trouble.
“Wait,” Porter said suddenly. “I’m getting an intermittent signal of some kind. I think it’s a beacon.”
“Where?” Hodges said.
“Between the third and fourth planets,” Porter said. He tapped a few commands, sending the exact coordinates to the helm.
Less than a minute later, the source of the signal was in view. It was a small box, about half a meter square.
“What is that?” Beck asked.
“I don’t know,” Porter said. “There’s some kind of energy field inside.”
“Probably an explosive,” Lazlo said. “Hodges, lock phasers.”
“Another signal just activated,” Porter said. “Actually, it’s a bunch of comm broadcasts. All in different languages. The universal translator is working on it.”
“And?” Beck and Lazlo asked expectantly.
Porter watched his monitor. “It says…Free to a Good Home.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Lazlo demanded.
“Bring it aboard,” Beck ordered.
“Madre de Dios! Are you nuts?” Lazlo snapped.
Ignoring the exchange, Porter activated the transporter, causing the box to materialize at the rear of the Wayward’s cockpit. He was up in an instant, scanning the box more closely with his tricorder. “I’m not reading anything dangerous. But then I’m not reading much at all.”
Beck reached down and activated the latch, causing the box’s lid to slowly swing open. “Stasis field,” she said flatly.
“Gross,” Lazlo said, looking down at the small brown slime-slicked blob inside the case. “What the hell is that thing?”
Porter didn’t need his tricorder to give the answer. He’d been up close and personal with the object in the box once before.
TO BE CONTINUED…