Dry Run Part 2

DRY RUN Part 2

By Mark E. Cotterill

If you haven't read the first chapters of this story, click here to read Part 1.


"Well, excuse me Miss Hawkins, but I must be going." Captain Normic rose from his seat and pulled his tunic straight. His face showed a kindly expression which changed to one of concern as he realised that Jannel was on her own. "If you're sure you'll be alright that is." He looked around. Jannel, not quite sure what he was looking for exactly, assured the Captain that, short of any battle thirsty Romulans, she would be able to avoid any serious incursions. With a graceful bow, Captain Normic was gone.

At his absence, Jannel was suddenly aware of the crowd, watching her, studying her, approaching her? She was startled by a hand on her shoulder.

"Good, he's gone," came a voice.

"Alborell, how was your meeting," said Jannel. Fraser told her, although his account was somewhat abridged. He also managed to avoid the illegality of the scheme in the conversation that filled the short journey to the ship. Within a few minutes they were both back at the Cougar, now with a container hanging expectantly beside it.

The large container was accompanied by Ricky and two men of questionable origin. The metal crate, suspended from a track in the ceiling by a thick latrium cable that had probably been doing the job for a hundred years, looked innocent enough from the outside, but Fraser knew what it contained. He could well understand why Ricky looked so concerned. It was times like this that Fraser really valued his ignorance. Explosives were not something that he wanted to know very much about.

Gently, and as covertly as possible, the Captain keyed in the access code to the Cougar's bay door. One of the men said something in an unknown tongue to his accomplice, who grunted. The conversation stopped there. At Alborell's command the large door to the cargo bay opened, and the two 'helpers' immediately set to work, first gently lowering the container and then unloading its contents.

"Just how careful do we have to be with this stuff," asked Fraser, sliding one of the smaller crates open. Ricky didn't look as though he was in the mood for a discussion.

"Very," he said, with little effect. Fraser noticed that, as the exterior markings of the box displayed, the crate appeared to contain nothing more than simple electronic components. Ricky's frequent bursts of admonition, during the loading operation, however reminded Fraser of his real freight. "That's in case we're searched," the boy reassured.

Within an hour the crates had been tightly packed into the ship and the relevant funds paid. Ricky declared the payload as safe as it would get and Captain Fraser secured the doors.

"Time for something to eat I think," he announced, a little more joyfully than the occasion required, and everyone went up to the poorly equipped galley. "This is where the money ran out," said Fraser apologetically upon entering. The room itself was split into two by a counter at waist height, running almost from one wall to the other, with a gap just wide enough to walk through at one end. Behind this counter were the guts of the food replication equipment and, like guts, they were not particularly pleasant to look at. Fraser had initially intended to have a smooth and seamless run of high quality replication units along the back wall, but after paying for the first two his budget had been considerably reduced. This had been due to the sudden additional expense of the Revor Strudek engine regulator, necessary, he had been told, to prevent most of the common shipboard malfunctions by limiting the various pressures and temperatures of the engines and other systems. It was a crude automatic engineer, but it was still better than Alborell. Next to the two expensive and highly efficient units were the economy standard units, described by the sales literature as 'reasonably priced and efficient' and as 'cheap trash' by the man that had fitted them. It all created the impression that the whole was some kind of unfinished Yanarian sculpture, whose contributions to the world of art over the years had long been blamed for its decline.

As if to demonstrate that, despite its appearance, the system was capable of producing a substance that was edible, Alborell proceeded to ask his guests what they wanted. They had to agree that what came out of the machine was as good as any other that they had tasted, but it was clear that they had other concerns on their minds.

Fraser wasn't sure how Ricky would feel about the forthcoming trip when he found out about their diversion to Eros. Maybe he would leave it until the last possible moment, but instinct told him that sooner would be better for all concerned.

"How soon will we be able to leave?" Ricky asked.

"Why do you want to know?" The Captain replied evasively. Ricky didn't look up from the unidentifiable vegetable on his plate.

"The longer we wait, the greater the chance that something will go wrong." Alborell tried to conceal his look of fear at the prospect. "I also need to know the day and time, my people want to arrange a diversion," Ricky continued.

"Tomorrow, at 08:00," said Alborell, nervously. Ricky took another mouthful of food and stood up.

"Where are you going?" Asked Fraser.

"To see someone." Alborell stood up too.

"I'll come with you."

"Forget it, he doesn't want to see you." Alborell looked at Jannel, but before he got the chance to speak Ricky interrupted him. "She doesn't know either."

"Nor do I want to," Jannel added.

Alborell returned to the replicator and ordered himself a newly programmed drink of coffee, it was a fair imitation. He decided to stay at the other end of the room for the moment.

"How will we avoid being detected, if you're diversion doesn't work?" Asked Alborell.

"The crates stacked on the outside edges of the cargo bay are full of computer parts, the other crates have false casings, to emit a bogus signal if they're scanned." Alborell was impressed. "It's not foolproof, but unless someone's looking straight at them they'll never find out that we're hauling explosives."

"Sounds like a professional job." Alborell noted, feeling that the time was right. "By the way, we're not going directly to Reebos Ceti," he announced, looking expectantly at Ricky.

"As you wish, but there's no need, Starfleet's too busy to bother us." He hadn't quite got the point.

"No, you don't understand, I have another job," said Captain Fraser. Ricky's expression changed, Fraser loosely flexed the fingers of his right hand.

"I don't think that's a very good idea, do you?" Said Ricky. Jannel began to wonder if it had been a good idea to force these two together after all.

"What I think doesn't matter, but your opinion has been noted." Ricky didn't take this kind of response well.

"Fraser, it doesn't matter what any of us think, its like I said, the longer we've got that cargo, the greater the risk." Ricky could see that Fraser wasn't interested.

"Mr. Hawkins, you are here as an advisor only, how I run my business is none of your concern." Ricky was becoming agitated.

"And just where is that you have to go that's so important?" Asked Ricky.

"Nowhere special," said Fraser, and then with further prompting, "Eros."

The two stared at each other for a few seconds, Jannel, who had wisely chosen not to intervene thus far, tried to think of something that would ease the situation. Unfortunately, it appeared that they had passed the point where her diplomatic skills would have an effect.

"Fraser, you can't go to Eros," said Ricky finally. "Why?"

"For one thing it's quarantined, if we get caught they'll have two good reasons to lock us away for good." Being locked away was in fact the least of Ricky's worries.

"I thought you said that Starfleet was busy," Alborell retaliated.

"There's a limit Fraser, if you don't cancel your agreement, I'm leaving." Ricky realised immediately that it was an empty threat. Fraser, however, didn't, but he also didn't care. Ricky blustered out of the door and down the corridor, destination unknown.

Jannel moved toward Fraser.

"In case you're wondering, I'm with him." She spoke in what she hoped was a calming tone, but it made little difference. It seemed that Fraser was unshaken by Ricky's challenge.

The Captain took his drink, sat down and looked around at his ship. Whatever happened, he thought, he could take some consolation in the fact that he had just made enough money to cover two and a half years payments on her.


Night passed slowly for Captain Fraser aboard the Cougar. He hadn't got very much sleep, which was unusual for Alborell, and so he was up well before the others. Ricky and Jannel were still aboard, despite the argument of the previous evening, but this was not the result of any action on Fraser's part. It was due to the simple fact that they had nowhere else to go.

Of course, work and recreation on the rest of the station continued regardless of the local time of the Cougar, and so there was still some activity on the small docking bay. Unable to effectively occupy himself confined to his ship, Alborell decided to take a short walk and maybe take a look around.

There were just three other ships docked along with the Cougar; a Regalian shuttle, an old transport and, a recent arrival, a cargo ship of some kind. It bore the insignia of the 'Qualtec Extraction & Processing Company', Fraser's new employers. It prompted some thought from the Captain who, though he knew it was probably a bad idea, felt somehow compelled to stroll past it for a closer look.

It was, like his own ship, small, barely a ship at all by classification. In spite of this, however, there was a considerable amount of activity surrounding it. The vessel clearly hadn't been docked for long, but already it had received the attention of a majority of the stations services. Various tendrils stretched up to the ceiling and Alborell could see a small group of station engineers, working just inside the cargo bay. As he moved to look closer he saw an older man, supervising in a way that only a captain could, standing in among the rows of tightly packed freight. It was obvious from the bold gestures that he was making to his crewmen that he was a leader of note. Occasionally he would shout a particularly important command at some poor individual, who would then scurry away in compliance.

Fraser read the ships name, 'Varatane IV', named for one of Regal's most important cities, a relic of the time before the Federation's presence in these sectors. Alborell suddenly heard someone, apparently calling to him.

"Hell, are you asleep, I said good morning." Fraser looked around and returned the greeting, noticing that it had come from the ship's Captain. "What's the matter, never seen a Zale class before." The old man slapped the side of his vessel proudly.

"To be honest, no I haven't." Fraser started to wonder. "How old is this ship?" He Asked. The question was not received well. The Captain took Alborell by the arm and quickly led him away from the ship, looking discreetly over his shoulder as he did so. Fraser waited for some explanation of this strange behaviour.

"You'll have to keep your voice down," whispered the old man, "she doesn't like me to tell people her age." Fraser simply nodded, the many years of command had obviously left their mark on the old Captain, Fraser thought it best to humour him. With further direction Alborell found himself being led back towards the front of the ship, deeper into the spacious hold.

As his eyes became accustomed to the dim light Fraser could see what it was that the Captain was leading him to. Bolted firmly to one of the large structural beams of the hull was an highly polished metal plate, on which the words 'SS Varatane IV launched this day, Stardate 1057.8. The fourth ship to bear the name' had been skilfully engraved. The plate had bore the one hundred and fourteen years of polishing well.

Back in those days, before this wild frontier was born, Qualtec was the power in these Sectors, just as the neighbouring Federation had been in the star systems scattered about its own homeworlds. Qualtec had been an influence, both politically and economically, in the development of scores of worlds. Commerce had driven diplomatic relations with the civilisations of these Sectors in the same way that exploration drove the Federation's mighty exploits. Qualtec had grown to be more than a corporation, it was the parent of all endeavour. Regal, Coriollis, Eros, all had been great nations on the interstellar map. Maybe if the Federation hadn't arrived, the unavoidable collapse would have been more of the disaster that was predicted. As it was, Qualtec fell apart quietly. The boom of its first century ensured its survival into the next, but nothing more. The grand vision had failed, commerce alone was not enough to support an empire.

As each member screamed at it for independence, Qualtec bowed to the superior Federation. In just thirty years the UFP inherited a portion of the Quadrant nearly one-hundred light years across. Claiming it took nothing more than a meagre show of strength, in many ways it was a policy that continued. There was very little to be concerned about on these boundaries. The Romulans and the Klingons sat far enough away from here to be of no consequence and the Cardassians were similarly distant. There was nothing beyond, but deep space. The only threat to Federation security here came from within the borders. Like the wild west of ancient Earth or the turmoil of early Vulcan, there were many people ready to exploit the weak grip that Starfleet had in these parts. Civilisation in its truest form, though once present, had yet to return.

Fraser turned back to the Captain.

"I'm impressed." He wondered about the old skipper. "Could I ask you a personal question?"

"That depends on what the question is," the Captain said, rather unhelpfully.

"Please don't think me disrespectful for saying so, but you are clearly a man of considerable experience," Alborell began, the Captain raising a modest smile, "and one would expect someone in a position such as yourself," a slightly bigger smile developed, "to perhaps be put in charge of a vessel of somewhat greater importance," Fraser concluded cautiously. The smile disappeared, there was an awkward silence.

"I guess I'm just too damn good at my job son." Alborell sensed that the Captain had been asked this question many times before. "Those big shot exec's must figure that I'm best left where I am, no sense getting upset about it, just a fact of life." Fraser knew exactly what he meant.

They both stood quietly for a moment, then the old man picked up a weighty box from the floor and walked over to a small door at the other side of the bay. Fraser hurried after him.

"Still, I expect you're looking forward to the Pageant next week," he said, attempting to raise the spirits of the skipper.

"Won't be here," the Captain said dismissively, "orders from Qualtec 'High Command'." Fraser laughed at the comparison.

"At least the Klingons would have honoured you for your service." The Captain stopped and rubbed his sleeve over one of the view ports set into the bulkhead. He looked at Slithe, the moon that served as the Sector headquarters for the massive Qualtec corporation. It was now neatly framed the view port that faced the stations docking bay entrance.

"So what's the problem here," said Alborell, changing the subject. He pointed to the three workmen that were crawling into and out of the nearby roof space. Fraser noticed that they seemed to be looking for something. Certainly they were neither removing nor fitting anything and there was no evidence of any damage in need of repair.

"Don't know," said the Captain, "something to do with insects."

"Insects?" Fraser checked that he had heard right, the realised that something was wrong. The feeling grew, until he was sure that there was definitely something that he should be worrying about. It finally struck him.

"Are they searching all of the ships?" He asked, trying to keep calm. The Captain told him that he didn't know, but Fraser was already on his way out.

When he reached his own ship and found a slumberous Ricky making the final checks on the cargo, he told him about the engineers. Fraser could see them packing up their equipment and preparing to leave the Varatane, for some reason Ricky didn't look worried.

"We've got to get out of here," Alborell blurted. Ricky remained strangely unconcerned.

"Relax, it's all taken care of." Fraser wondered if the rest of the day was going to be like this. "We're not going to let his operation end before it's started." Fraser was more than a little suspicious about the 'we' that Ricky kept referring to.

"We will be searched," said Fraser, attempting to recalibrate his perception. Ricky patted him on the shoulder, an act that greatly annoyed Alborell under the best of circumstances.

"I've told you, it's all part of the plan," Ricky Hawkins reassured.

"This?" said Fraser, who was gradually beginning to realise the full extent of what was going on.

"Look they're leaving." Fraser looked across, sure enough, the technicians were walking toward the steps at the end of the dock. "We should go now," suggested Ricky, pushing one of the boxes to assure himself of its security.

"I take it that you've decided to stay on board," said Fraser, walking to the lift.

"I'm still here."

"Despite the fact that I'm sticking with my decision to go to Eros?" Captain Fraser knew that Ricky's options must be limited.

"You won't do anything foolish Fraser, your risk is as great as mine."

"I wish I had your confidence." Alborell stepped onto the elevator.

The sound of the instruments on the bridge somehow seemed to calm Captain Alborell Fraser, it was like music. When the ship was at rest, the melody was light and meditative, when in flight, there was a purposeful note to the song. Fraser hadn't yet experienced battle, but he imagined that something along the lines of the death march would probably be most appropriate. He sat down to the left of the centre console and stretched over to the main controls. Rows of lights came on, panels came to life, processors and sub-processors began computing. When satisfied that all was as it should be, he turned to the communications board, turned it on with the master control switch and opened a channel to the busy Traffic Administration Centre. He waited for the reply from the automated systems and was surprised to hear a spoken voice.

"Attention SS Cougar, please stand by, do not attempt to leave docking bay Alpha 7." Fraser's mind froze and then raced. What had happened, where was Ricky, was this part of the plan too?

Suddenly the bridge became a fairground of lights and sounds. They were on to him and he had no escape, maybe he could bluff his way out. He looked at the main status panel. The aft sensors showed a group of people bustling down the steps of Alpha 7, all of them security officers. Alborell dabbed at a few switches and the same image appeared, larger and clearer, on the transparent surface of the forward viewport. Ricky walked onto the bridge, unnoticed as Fraser continued to watch. The guards scurried along the bay, towards the Cougar's, now secure, rear door, then alongside the ship and over to the Varatane. Fraser could scarcely believe his luck, but his elation turned to anger as he realised that this was what Ricky had been talking about.

"SS Cougar, you are clear for departure," said the, more usual, computer voice of the station's operations centre.

"Come on Fraser, get us out of here." Alborell turned around to see Ricky.

"That was not necessary." Ricky hadn't foreseen this difficulty, maybe he had underestimated Fraser's integrity. He had assumed that someone willing to take the risks involved with smuggling, would also take the consequences, whatever they might be.

Alborell looked again at the screen and saw the old Captain being marched away from his ship, two security officers at his side. He looked extremely confused by it all, understandably. What was going through his mind, wondered Fraser, recalling his own feelings moments earlier.

"Come on Fraser, lets go!" Ricky was almost shouting. Alborell realised that he was powerless, both to prevent and to react to what would inevitably happen to the Captain. Fraser realised that he had lost something when he had left Starfleet and entered this, wholly different, world. For all that he had gained he would have to act alone from now on. He could not put his trust in just anyone, especially not Ricky. Fraser restrained himself, but vowed to save his anger for the right time. He knew his moment would come, now he had to go.

Ricky gave a sigh of relief as the ship rose from the bay and began its pedantry trek to the exit. His work done, Ricky moved toward the door.

"The day will come when someone will pay for these actions," said Fraser, with conviction. Ricky could almost grasp onto that hope, but he knew the reality. Alborell Fraser didn't know what Anson Jacs could do, or had done and it was Ricky's fate to protect the crime lord for fear of what might happen.


Before the hour was up, the SS Cougar was moving on to the small satellite that circled Regal. As they neared it the Captain examined the information from the poorly equipped sensor systems. There were a large number of buildings spread around the exterior of Slithe, most of these structures, maintenance sheds, holding bays, warehouses, looked pretty anonymous. Other units housed the power plants and support systems needed to maintain life on the otherwise hostile planetoid and batteries of lighting equipment kept the whole place visible during the twelve hour night. As the Cougar dropped lower Fraser could see the small administration building, now mostly computerised. The distant red ball of heat that was the centre of the Regalian system sank away on the horizon of the moon and the computer voice from the control centre entered the bridge.

Fraser recited the message that Davison had given him and, after a small delay, a short string of coordinates appeared on the navigation display. As Alborell had anticipated, it directed him toward a deserted and derelict area of the base, well away from the main part of Qualtec's operations centre, where an old building backed onto a barely noticeable landing platform. Someone was expecting them, they had had the foresight to turn on the guide beacons which shone out obscurely through the dust.

The Cougar landed softly in the low gravity and its wary occupants looked about them. Ahead, through the large cockpit window, a low wall could be seen. This barrier, with a heavy metallic gate set into it, ran along the three sides of the perimeter of the landing pad and then joined the small building behind the ship, forming an enclosure. It seemed odd that someone would want to put a wall around something this insignificant, and in any case, what was there to keep out?

The engines of the small vessel were silenced and Alborell tried to see if anyone had noticed their arrival. Even with the height that the Cougar's bridge afforded, it was difficult to discern any details in the landscape around them. Slithe was never extensively described in the guide books written on Regal. Most, quite correctly, focused on the places within the System that people would actually like to visit. Slithe was little more than a collection of rocks, and uninteresting rocks at that. The addition of a number of office buildings and supply stations added nothing to the small moon's extremely limited appeal.

Ricky, who had been periodically peering at an incidental display panel toward the back of the bridge, noticed some movement from beyond the gates. A slow moving vehicle was approaching. While Fraser and Jannel watched, the two large doors slid apart. This took some effort, and revealed the truck that carried Orrin Davison, some equipment and a single member of Qualtec's diminished labour force. It moved casually on, further into the compound until it reached the rear door of the ship, where it coasted to a halt. The small amount of dust, disturbed by the thin atmosphere, hung in ghostly cones of illumination under the bright lights. The large door that closed the cargo bay off from the near vacuum, began to open. Fraser turned on the containment field and cycled some air into the bay, under the watchful eye of Ricky, who didn't trust the safety systems at all. At the given signal, Davison's truck slid effortlessly onto the ship.

Davison and his assistant stepped out of their transport and Ricky and Alborell stepped out of the elevator. Jannel, who had expressed her desire to study the workings of the bridge a little more closely, stayed where she was and watched the proceedings on the monitor. The Captain had spent the spare hour on the way here showing her some of the basic operations, and Jannel had remarked on how interesting she found it all. Maybe, she had eventually realised, she could look into the matter a little more seriously when the mission was over. She felt that taking the helm of a ship would fulfil her potential somewhat more than waitressing.

Ricky's present concern was as it was most of the time since the explosives had been loaded. Fraser had criticised him for devoting too much attention to something that was inherently unpredictable, and he had also advised him against running onto the bridge every few minutes with the complaint that a manoeuvre was causing too much inertial stress or that the vibrations from the engines were carrying through into the hold. Nevertheless, it was Ricky's task to use his extensive skill to keep the grenades within their specified safety limits and that was what he did. In anticipation of what was to come he had looked at the data that the computer held on Eros. It was not good. Even at this time of the year when the temperatures were dropping to towards their winter levels, the daytime average was well above the danger limit. If he had to, Ricky knew that he could back out of the arrangement. Anson Jacs would still send him of course, it would just be with someone else and for now, even with things the way they were, he didn't want that. Ricky had learned quickly during his 'career' that instinct was sometimes the best thing to follow and his instinct told him that Fraser was not all of the fool that he appeared. Sometimes instinct was almost impossible to believe.

Ricky's regular inspection tour of the cargo bay had caused him some concern on a number of occasions and he had rapidly drawn the conclusion that all of the equipment fitted to the Cougar had a failure rate much less than the vessels service schedule. Everything would eventually go wrong, maybe not all at once and certainly not with any degree of predictability. His attention at present was on the containment field of the bay door. As yet, and by Fraser's own admission, it had not been tested 'in the field'. It had seven independent safety interlocks and an in built warning system, it was more than safe, so why didn't Ricky trust it?

While the contents of the truck were unloaded and stacked neatly in one corner, Davison began explaining to Fraser what exactly his mission entailed. The sensors, which would be needed to examine the surface of the planet Eros, came in the form of four pallets, all of a standard size and configuration. They were specialist and probably extremely expensive and they would take a few hours to fit and calibrate. This task had boldly been accepted by Captain Fraser, who had done the job slightly less than half a dozen times before, because he didn't want to waste time while the technicians on Slithe did the job.

Alborell took the isolinear chip that contained his mission specifications and slotted it into the terminal near to the main door. Images of the sensor pallets and other equipment began to flick past him on the screen and Orrin Davison started to explain more fully what was to be done.

"If you follow my instructions your work should be complete inside a day." Davison confidently announced. Alborell had never been an academic and much of his attention had been diverted during the long briefing. "Are you sure you don't want further details Captain, you realise that you will not be able to contact me once your mission is underway." Fraser assured Orrin that it was all perfectly clear. "Do you know yet what your ultimate destination will be?" Davison asked Alborell. He told him. "Good, I shall arrange for someone to meet you at Reebos Ceti Spaceport, you will receive the other half of your payment when the coded disc has been received." All of this seemed acceptable to the Captain and he studied the screen again briefly. Ricky butted in.


"As the data are collected they will be encrypted onto the storage disc," Orrin assured, "it will be useless to you or anyone else without the proper security clearance." The last of the containers were being placed in the hold. "Just a cautionary measure you understand, if our competitors were to acquire this information then we would have no advantage over them when Eros came to be auctioned." Fraser listened with fascination and then asked if there was anything else that he needed to know. "Yes there is one more thing, all of the sensor equipment is to be destroyed as soon as you have completed the survey." Fraser looked at Ricky.

"How are we going to do that?" Davison walked over to one of the pallets.

"All of the sensor equipment contains a low impact explosive, primed here," Davison pointed to the back of one of the pallets, "and activated by a subspace signal." Fraser could see that Ricky was growing more and more concerned. "I recommend that you dispose of the equipment in the upper atmosphere of the planet." Davison moved back toward the truck.

With a final farewell, Orrin beckoned to his assistant, who was getting a little too curious about Fraser's cargo for comfort, and the pair started toward their transport. It took a full second for Alborell to recognise the loud klaxon that signalled the condition of 'Red Alert', and then he still didn't know why it had sounded. Ricky was shouting something at him and Orrin Davison, who was just a moment ago walking placidly, was now running. Alborell wondered what they had seen. As he observed further he saw that Ricky was heading for the lift with increasing speed and Davison was almost inside the truck, his companion being some way behind. Then Fraser heard the message that he had obviously missed the first time.

"Warning, Cargo Bay Containment Failure In Three Seconds." He immediately started to run. Davison, he noted, was now safely inside the truck and he had just managed to seal the door. The technician was a few seconds late and had just realised that it would be impossible to get inside, time being too short for Orrin to both release and reseal the airlock. Ricky, in the meantime, had reached the lift, where he would be able to utilise the airlock facility. The computer informed them that another second had gone.

As Davison's, presumably dispensable, assistant scrambled for the exterior controls of the vehicles airlock, Davison turned away. He had obviously realised what he was about to see, the effects of decompression on the human body not being something that he wished to witness. Fraser pushed himself toward the lift, from which he was now just a few metres, providing Ricky held out, he would make it to safety. The count reached one second. Ricky, who was now inside the lift and poised to slam the button that would close the door, could see the field that covered the bay door beginning to flicker, the computer said its last, "Cargo Bay Containment Has Been Terminated." The Captain reached the lift just as its door was beginning to close and slumped at Ricky's feet. They had made it.

Or so it seemed. Both together they realised that the ferocious rush of air, escaping from the hold out of the large gap that had just opened at its end, would act like a strong wind. A wind that could rip everything fixed to the floor of the hold from its restraints and out of the bay in a most disorderly fashion. This was not a good way to treat explosives. Once one grenade went off, so would the others. They could not escape.

It was some consolation to them that it would all happen very soon at least, and it would be quick. Fraser thought of Jannel, and then remembered something. There was a sizable pause at the end of which the two of them noticed that they were still standing in the elevator, both very much alive. The lack of any evidence that the inevitable disaster had occurred, continued to bother them. As Fraser had suspected, Jannel had saved them.

Captain Fraser opened the door to see everything just as they had left it, the containment field had been reestablished. A rather embarrassed Orrin Davison stepped back out into the cargo bay.

"Is everything alright Captain," he asked nervously, eying his assistant. The Captain waved casually.

"Happens all the time." Davison left, taking his technician with him.

Back on the bridge Alborell and Ricky met Jannel, now fully aware of what had happened, but not so wise as to its cause.

"Glad you could make it," she said, without making much of what she had just done. Fraser checked the instruments.

"Looks like a power failure," came his diagnosis. "You reacted very quickly Jannel, how did you know where the auxiliary systems were?" Jannel gave a blank expression, almost as though it was obvious.

"Well, I remembered them from somewhere before, somehow they seemed familiar, for a while I couldn't understand it." Fraser and Ricky still couldn't.

"Jannel, you've never been on the bridge of a ship before now, how could you possibly have remembered the controls for a subsystem of a complex power allocation terminal." Ricky sounded unconvinced.

"Easy, I didn't see them on a ship."

"Jannel, what are you saying?" Fraser asked. Jannel stood up.

"Alborell, this control panel," she pointed at the control panel, "is the exact same control panel on the food replicators at the Coriollis Spaceport diner." Fraser, made a mental note; when all of this was over, he was going back to the shipyards of Asmodeus.


It had taken most of the day for Ricky and Jannel to realise how boring space travel could be if one was in any degree of comfort. This was the first time that either of them had been on a starship legitimately, even though they still feared capture. At least no one was looking for them yet. Certainly they felt safer here, on the Cougar, whether they actually were was quite another question.

As the evening approached, Fraser found himself in the part of the ship in which he felt the least comfortable, the Engineering section. For despite all of the technical additions that had been made to the ship, Alborell really only felt safe when he had seen that everything was as it should be. The term 'Engineering' was in fact a rather misleading description of the location. It was nothing much more than a continuation of the corridor at the aft of the ship, with a door at one end and a wide section, housing the reaction assembly, at the other. The larger, aft portion, of the room was a couple of metres lower with a step ladder leading down into the bottom of the pit, indeed this was the singularly most pleasing view aboard the ship, at least as far as Alborell was concerned. Two short conduits with thick constrictor coils of flashing green pushed the fuel that came from the matter and anti-matter storage tanks into the bulbous core of the reaction chamber. From there power was transferred to the solitary warp nacelle affixed to the top of the ship, which, with luck and a good deal of faith, kept the ship at the high speeds essential for interstellar travel.

When the whole thing was humming in a perfectly tuned condition, as it was now, there was a sense of life about it. Often, Alborell Fraser could stand and listen to it for an entire hour, completely unaware of the world around him. The warp engine was truly the heart of a starship, it bore the definition of the vessel. Some ships, like the USS Morgan, had large and highly efficient engines with wide open control centres arranged around tall sections of the warp engines. Others, like the Cougar, had tiny and cramped control rooms, fitted into gaps where bulkheads met and where only the most essential parts of the engine were exposed.

With its neat rows of antique-looking dials, which Fraser now examined, the Cougar was little more than functional, a means of transport. He considered the prospect of someday owning a bigger vessel, he realised of course that he would have to wait, besides, he had not the leadership skills for such an undertaking. His great problem had always been that he could only work well alone, he often felt a lack of power over others.

He had almost finished his daily checks when the computer announced that they were nearing another vessel. As he rushed over to the Bridge he attracted the unwanted attention of Ricky. Fraser decided that it wasn't worth an argument, he simply looked at the screen and hoped that it would be something uninteresting that a simple alteration in course would neatly avoid.

"What is it?" Asked Ricky, with little prospect of a sensible reply.

"I don't know," said Alborell, trying to feed the boy with as little information as possible.

"Don't go any nearer, they'll see us." It would take too long for Fraser to explain about sensor ranges and transponder signals, so he just told Ricky to shut up instead. Alborell put the image from the sensors onto the main viewer and saw that there were actually three ships, arranged in a small group, they were just sitting there. He tried to get an ID.

Slowly and somewhat imprecisely, the processors of the Cougar registered the unknown vessels. The first was an old ship, a Foundation class. Its name was the Grenoble, obviously it was part of the Pageant, or at least it had been. It was currently being powered by the second ship, which, by contrast, was a very modern and extremely expensive cruiser. The third ship to appear on the screen set Ricky to stone. The effect was not mirrored in Alborell however, whose mood had lightened at the sight of the USS Alliance. It seemed that, despite Ricky's assurances, Starfleet had found them.

Alborell said nothing, he simply sat down and began to turn the Cougar towards the small assemblage of ships.

"What are you doing?" Shouted Ricky in disbelief. "You've got to get us out of here." Fraser didn't answer, he continued the manoeuvre. He wondered just how far Ricky could be pushed before his past words of threat would be formed into actions.

"I think that might look a little suspicious, don't you, besides, you didn't say anything about me visiting my old friends." Ricky looked unsure, was this a joke? Fraser wouldn't seriously take the Cougar into close range with a Starfleet patrol ship would he?

"Fraser, you can risk your own head, but not mine and not Jannel's," Ricky could see that his protest was wasted, Fraser's mind was made up.

"You know, I'm getting a little tired of telling you this, but I can see that you have trouble understanding it so I'll say it again," Fraser stood up and faced the young man. He wasn't bluffing this time. "This is my ship and it's my bridge, and if I want your opinion on how to run it I'll ask you," he poked his finger into Ricky's chest. Usually behaviour like that put Ricky in a bad mood, the kind where he started busting furniture, but he realised that he wasn't on the streets anymore, he had to control himself. Ricky would have to think of other ways to persuade Fraser.

Alborell hadn't seen, or even heard from, Robert Hayes for a long time. He had been given a promotion to Lieutenant Commander after rescuing a stranded away team during a dangerous mission at Sanrahsis III and soon after he had received command of the Alliance. Looking at it now it wasn't much of a ship. Of course, no one in their right mind would have turned down the offer of a ship when it came, but the Alliance was just a stepping stone to other things. All Hayes had to do, was keep himself and his crew alive until another ship came along to replace the old one.

It took little more than an hour for the Cougar to get near enough to see the three ships, which remained stationary. Captain Fraser was a little surprised that they hadn't yet opened communications with him. The Alliance would certainly have picked them up on its sensors long ago. Alborell turned to the communication controls and saw the reason for the apparent silence. The channel was still jammed open from the last time that he had used it, Fraser had forgotten about the missing switch, without which he could not close the transmission channel. Within a few seconds of his rectifying the fault, the comm board was alive with activity.

"SS Cougar, this is the USS Alliance, please respond," the message went. "If your communications are damaged and you cannot respond to this transmission please signal us with running lights." The voice was that of Captain Hayes, but it was recorded and repeated.

Fraser wondered what the Alliance had heard, the Cougar's transmission had carried every word of the conversation between himself and Ricky. No doubt he would find out.

"This is the Cougar," he replied in a deliberately brief manner. The recording continued for a moment, but was quickly cut short by a different voice.

"Cougar, hold your position," it said, in an equally uniform manner.

"Alliance, I would like to speak with your Captain," said Fraser, adding the formality to his tone that was so often required to get Starfleet officers to do anything.

"I'm sorry, but Captain Hayes is not available." The reply was as brief as it was assured.

"You may tell him that Alborell Fraser wishes to speak with him," Fraser said with disregard, adding, "Cougar out." Despite his irreverence, Fraser thought it wise to do as he had been originally asked and he cut the engines.

Ricky wasn't sure what was going on, he just knew that he wasn't going to like it.

"What are you going to do if they decide to come aboard?" Ricky asked. He had abandoned the idea of talking Fraser out of his mistake, Fraser was too stubborn for that, but he might be able to lead him to the only conclusion that there was, namely, that this meeting could only end in catastrophe.

"They won't, they're too busy."

"I hope you're right," Ricky doubted it.

"There are fifty-seven people aboard the Alliance, spread across three shifts, with a small engineering and technical staff, they won't want to waste their time searching a ship that they have already determined as carrying computer parts." Fraser was convincing himself, but he wasn't convincing Ricky. Jannel, who had heard the earlier row and wandered towards its source, decided to remain neutral, she could take it out on whoever was wrong.

The picture of Robert Hayes appeared on the main screen as Fraser noticed the incoming call.

"Well well, 'Captain' Fraser." Alborell smiled at his old friend, now before him, larger than life. He looked a little unfamiliar in the red tunic of command, but it suited him. Hayes had always been authoritative. "Your own ship at last, it is a ship isn't it?" He laughed.

"At least you know I didn't steal it," Fraser replied. It was good to see Hayes, they had had some good times together and on occasion even helped each other through difficulties. Most of the difficulties involved Fraser and most of the help involved Hayes, but real friends never kept a score. The two old comrades talked as the Cougar moved back on course to the assortment of stationary vessels. Ricky and Jannel left the clearly personal reunion and weren't surprised when, half an hour later, they were told by Fraser to 'standby for transport'.

For the uninitiated, travel by means of transporter could be a terrifying experience. Everyone knew a little about how they worked, even Jannel and Ricky, indeed if any one thing was at the core of this terror it was this little knowledge. From the point of view of the transportee, it was a hit and miss affair. First you were scanned, in itself a miracle of modern computer and sensor technology. This scan it seemed was to see what you were made of and what those bits should look like when assembled. The scan itself took hardly any time at all and was often, as it was in this case, performed by a computer tens of thousands of kilometres away. If this blind glance at you was satisfactory then the next phase of the operation began. Each component atom of your body was systematically turned into energy, you were completely destroyed, conjured away into oblivion, yet somehow not dead. This stream of pure energy was then sent through that least understood of all mediums, subspace. Here, where space had no meaning and where light did not follow the principles that had for so long formed the basis of the physical world, you were hurled through the non-spatial expanse and turned back into atoms again. The fact that these were not the same atoms that had started the journey never seemed to worry anybody.

When the ghostly silver-blue mist descended on them, Jannel and Ricky found that they recalled none of these thoughts. It felt pleasantly warm, like being lowered into hot water, they could feel the effects of the Cougar's gravity receding as the beam covered them. As quickly as it had begun it was over. The feeling of warmth and lightness was gone and they were both standing on the SS Grenoble, Captain Fraser at their side. Hayes greeted all three. Jannel exhaled the air, which itself had been scanned, dematerialised, cleaned of harmful biological organisms and reintegrated inside her lungs, that she had taken in aboard the other ship and wondered about what had just happened to her.

It was clear from the first glimpse of the Grenoble's interior that all was not well. It had been leading the Pageant race from Starbase 71 to Oplan, an event taken quite seriously by its competitors, but the objective had now been reduced to that of finishing, and that only if the ship could be repaired. The attempts to return some life to the vessel were frantic, and to some extent misguided. No one really looked as though they knew what the problem with the ship really was. The Starfleet engineers that had come over to see if they could be of any help, knew very little about the museum worthy systems of the Grenoble, and the few engineers assigned permanently to the old ship were similarly inexperienced with the kind of extensive repair work necessary to keep the ship operational. The two camps were making an earnest effort to work through the problem together but the overall effect was that of confusion rather than cooperation. Great pieces of the vessel were scattered around the place, hanging out of walls, dangling from ceilings and cluttering the floor. Most of them looked alien to Fraser, indeed the majority of the technical staff. This was an old ship made out of older components.

In contrast to this fragile example of early space flight was the solid, smooth and sleek pleasure cruiser of Mr. Leery Simens, owner of the SS Grenoble. The Melxor III had power to spare and, like a younger relative holding the hand of a grandparent, it provided essential support in this hour of need. From out of the confused scene before them came an equally confused looking person. Captain Revornn, such as he was, proudly proclaimed himself to be a Fovonian. This he did simply by his distinctive appearance and his striking manner. His skin was soft, dark and of a rich reddish colour, his face, though similar to that of a human, had less well pronounced features, his nose seemed as though it had been pressed into his face and his eyes were unprotected by the deep sockets characteristic of the human skull. His lips too were thin and formless, without the thickness of the human equivalent and his ears, similarly, were devoid of fleshy outcrops, being merely small cavities toward the topmost part of the head.

He was from a race of intellectuals and members and exponents of a most unusual world government. Jannel had met enough Captains for one lifetime and so she quickly sidestepped into an adjacent room where a somewhat less fraught member of the crew was working. Fraser introduced Ricky and Jannel to the Fovonian, then simultaneously noticed and apologised for Jannel's untimely absence. Ricky was interested to learn that it was an introduction that had elevated both himself and his sister to the status of subordinates to Captain Fraser. He thought it best not to contradict him, Ricky especially, didn't want to answer questions pertaining to his true occupation.

As Revornn led them further down the ship Alborell recalled the first and only time that he had visited Fovon, a key point along the trade route between the Federation's centre and the outlying region that they were presently in. It had been when he was a bridge officer aboard a ship called the Warrior, as a cadet. It had been a brief excursion, but one that he was sure he would remember for a very long time. Revornn, though a Fovonian by general category, was actually from a group called the Dalen.

Like many on Fovon, they were not native to the planet. They had established themselves around two centuries ago when their limited capacity for stellar travel had brought them from their native world of Asmagia to the nearby star systems, Fovon among them. Even then, Fovon's curious governmental system was in place. The Dalen were soon accepted however and granted their own administrative cell along with the other factions within the populous. In fact the Dalen had become one of the largest groups on Fovon, responsible for forming a further three cells of government, giving them a total of four chairs on the Grand Order of Governors.

With twenty-four separate cells of government presiding over the entire planet Fovon had no borders, indeed no physical divisions of any kind, everyone lived together. It was a wonderful way to run a world. No more need anyone be subject to oppression from a dictator or be misrepresented by an unwanted leader, those unhappy with their leadership could change to another group, more representative of their ideals. If none existed that suited them, they could form one. Also, because there were never any elections, politics were at their minimum. It was all a most curious manner of ordering the population, Fraser had noted, but one that had stood the proof of practice. Fovon had become such a popular world for potential colonists that they were now required to undergo rigorous tests before admission to the planet.

As Alborell described it to Captain Hayes he could see a look of puzzlement passing over his face.

"It sounds a fine idea, but there's one thing I don't understand," Fraser listened on, "there are as many ideas as there are people, why only twenty-four cells and not one-billion and twenty-four?" Alborell answered with enthusiasm.

"That's the real beauty of the system, the more chairs there are on the Grand Order of Governors, the more difficult it becomes to form a new cell." Hayes had to admit that the system was admirable in its functionality.

"So all of governors have to agree to the proposed cell before it's allowed, it has to be completely unanimous."

"Usually it's the less radical, most popular ideas that are accepted, but there are exceptions."

Their short guided walk ended at the stately dining room of the magnificent ship, Revornn pointed out the view, although it was quite unnecessary to do so. It was a view like nothing that they had ever seen before. The outer bulkhead of the corridor that they stood in was completely transparent, as was the roof of the hall all the way to the opposite side of the ship where a similarly clear corridor completed the effect. To dine aboard the Grenoble was to dine among the stars, almost an entire hemisphere of them. Unfortunately the galley was as dead as the rest of the ship and all of the food being laid out on the already full table had been transported over from the Alliance.

Jannel walked up to the awe struck group, accompanied by a short man with a smouldering stick of paper and tobacco hanging out of his mouth.

"Ah, Drake, there you are." Revornn exclaimed, breaking the spell that seemed to be holding everyone. Drake, whoever he was, avoided what was now becoming the customary formal introduction and walked past the group standing in the corridor and straight into the dining hall. Revornn followed and everyone felt the negative charge suddenly present between Revornn and Drake. From the conversation that ensued Fraser gathered that Drake was the Chief Engineer of the ship, the details of the discussion were issued at such a velocity however, that Alborell could determine nothing more than that simple fact.

When they had had enough of standing in the passageway, the now unescorted group blustered their way into the hall. As they had hoped, Revornn took his queue and returned to his more placid state. Fraser noticed that the Engineer remained at Captain Revornn's side.

"Did I hear you talking about Fovon earlier Captain?" Said Revornn, who had clearly tired of the subject long ago, but who had nothing else with which to change the subject. Fraser paused in the hope that Revornn would continue the conversation without further prompting, which he did. "I haven't been there for years, perhaps when this race is over I might go back." Revornn sounded sincere, but something in his voice told Fraser that there was more to it than that, something Revornn didn't want them to know.

"Well I wouldn't care if I never saw the place again," said Drake, with no attempt to conceal his true feelings. Jannel informed Alborell that, in her brief discussion with the Engineer, she had found out that both he and Revornn had left Fovon at the same time. The reason was not obvious.

"You sound as if you are glad to be away from it," said Hayes, he had suspected that Fraser had left out some of the less attractive details in his account, here was the proof.

"Which group did you belong to?" Fraser couldn't understand Drake's obvious hatred of a world which he knew to be so magnificent.

"It depends," said Drake, the answer defied any sensible interpretation.

"On what?" Asked Alborell, more curious than ever.

"You can't believe everything you hear about Fovon Mr. Fraser," there was clearly a story here, but they got the feeling that they weren't going to get to hear it. "I was lucky, like Revornn, I escaped, others didn't." Drake turned his back on them and walked over to the far end of the table. Alborell began to wonder. Was this the reason for the unexplained tension between the ship's crew? Was Drake in some way connected with the ship's malfunction? Maybe they would find out when Leery Simens arrived. One thing was sure, it was going to be an interesting evening.


It may have been considered foolhardy for Alborell Fraser to have accepted Captain Hayes' invitation to assist in the fitting of the Cougar's 'new' sensor pallets. The three well trained and highly experienced engineers from the USS Alliance were much appreciated by Fraser and treated with suspicion by Ricky, but the meal had been such a delight that to have declined such a generous offer would have certainly spoiled the wonderful atmosphere of the occasion. Not that the atmosphere had been so great for the rest of those in attendance, Leery Simens had displayed quite a monumental bad temper and most sensible people had avoided conversation with him completely, fortunately though Fraser was sufficiently imperceptive to have never noticed the all encompassing bad feeling. Possibly this had been because of the unrivalled food that had been on offer. He had forgotten how much he enjoyed Starfleet steak, despite its inherent invariability. It was a trait of replicated food that one steak was exactly the same as another, all things being generated from code derived from a single scan of a subject taken years ago. At least Fraser's replicators didn't suffer from this, mainly because they did not work well enough.

Ricky's sense of disbelief was increased when another visitor arrived in the cargo bay of the ship. Rex Drake, though dressed for the occasion, did not look like he was here to find work. His overalls had not yet been exposed to the dirt and filth of an engine room or maintenance crawlway and he carried no tools. Seeing and recognising Ricky he approached him.

"I need to speak with your Captain." Drake's request was delivered with no attempt at diplomacy.

"Who sent you here?" Ricky wondered what the Chief Engineer of the Grenoble could possibly want with Alborell, musing briefly over the possibility that this was yet another undisclosed acquaintance of Fraser's. Rex Drake took his time, looking passively at the Starfleet officers working at the other end of the bay.

"I must see him," said Drake finally, noticing the lift just behind Ricky.

"Wait, I'll ask," Ricky walked toward the comm panel but the irreverent Engineer was already on his way to the elevator. "Captain, Mr. Drake from the SS Grenoble is here to see you." Ricky turned back just in time to see the lift rising.

It was unclear what exactly was discussed in the half hour that followed, but evidently a plan had been formulated. A smiling and secretive Alborell Fraser accompanied the Engineer Drake back into the cargo bay, where Ricky yet again voiced his disapproval of the whole thing.

"Fraser, this is suicide, what are you trying to do?" Fraser still didn't look interested. "Do you want Starfleet to find those grenades, is that it?" Whatever Alborell had been doing previously, he had devoted some time to thinking of a reply to such a question.

"Look, it's obvious." Ricky could feel his reasoning preparing itself to be grappled with once again.

"What, what's obvious?"

"This," Fraser waved his hand at the crates in the hold, "what kind of smuggler would invite someone into his hold?" Ricky didn't get it, was Fraser agreeing with him?

"What kind, a pretty dumb kind Fraser, maybe like someone standing in this cargo bay right now."

"Yes exactly, no one with a cargo as sensitive as mine would be so stupid as to actually ask for well trained Starfleet officers to come onto his ship, indeed, to fit illegal sensor equipment whilst standing right next to that very cargo." Ricky thought about giving up, but his curiosity got the better of him.

"Okay, so tell me Fraser, why did you invite three Starfleet officers on-board?" Alborell was smiling again in a quite obnoxious way.

"Haven't you ever heard of hiding an object in plain sight?" Ricky hadn't. "Do you see them scanning the ship, asking questions, looking inside the crates?" Even though he understood it, Ricky still did not like it. "Of course not, they're all too busy, they don't suspect me of smuggling because they know that no smuggler would be that stupid."

"They don't know you do they Fraser." Ricky realised that he could spend the rest of his life with this man when the final prison sentence came, but it was neither the time nor the place to cry.

Rex Drake had made straight for the officers at work on the sensor array and seemed a little more cheerful than he had been previously. The three Alliance crewmen welcomed the assistance and seemed to be getting on well with the, reportedly difficult, Engineer. Jannel's voice came over the communications channel,

"Captain, Mr. Simens wishes to speak with you." The fact that she had used that word, 'Captain', alerted Alborell to the fact that this was a formal communication.

"Put him through down here," said Fraser with an uncharacteristic confidence. Leery Simens' face appeared on the small terminal in the cargo bay. "Mr. Simens, what can I do for you?" Alborell smiled, as hideously cheerful as Simens was ill tempered.

"Where's Drake?" Leery asked sharply. Fraser feigned ignorance, not something that he had to work at.

"Why are you asking me?"

"He was last seen transporting over to your vessel." A fact that it was hard to disprove.

"So?" Fraser began to wonder about the defensive capabilities of the Melxor III.

"Fraser, my patience is not limitless, get me Drake, I know he's trying to escape aboard your pitiful ship."

"Pitiful," cried Alborell, at last Simens had given him something to work with, "at least my ship can fly."

"Yes, but you're ship hasn't been sabotaged by that crook Drake, now where is he." Fraser checked briefly to see that his shields were up and then turned back to the screen.

"I'm sorry, but Mr. Drake cannot be contacted here, goodbye." Fraser swiftly closed the channel.

Drake strode up to the Captain and tapped him firmly on the shoulder.

"Nice work if I might say so Captain." Fraser nodded. "The sensors are all fixed up now sir." The idea of having an engineer began to appeal to Fraser. Ricky didn't seem too enthusiastic however. He was about to start some wild argument with Fraser when he saw the Starfleet officers preparing to leave. Jannel was heard over the comm again.

"Captain, another call has come in, this time from the USS Alliance."

"Put it through," said Fraser wearily, he trudged over to the terminal again, "Mr. Drake, best keep yourself out of sight," he suggested. Rex Drake promptly went over to talk to Ricky. This time it was the face of Robert Hayes on the monitor. "Robert, nice of you to call." Alborell could see this situation getting a little more involved than he had anticipated.

"Alborell what's going on?" Hayes looked genuinely puzzled.

"Going on?" There was no point trying to deny anything and besides, Fraser couldn't lie to a friend.

"I've just spoken to a rather angry Leery Simens."

"My fault I'm afraid," admitted Fraser.

"Another thing Alborell, why have you raised your shields, my people can't beam back to the ship."

"I can explain everything Robert, but I need to know if you'll help me." The plea was genuine, Hayes knew Fraser well enough to be able to see that, but what would helping him involve?

"Alright, I'll extend my shields around your vessel," Hayes gestured to somebody off-screen, "once my crewmen are aboard we'll discuss this." The image of Captain Hayes disappeared and the Cougar brought down its shields.

Ricky saw his opportunity arise again and advanced on Fraser only to realise that there was still another 'visitor' aboard. Rex Drake had taken on a whole new persona from the one that he had displayed aboard the Grenoble. Whatever he had done to that ship had rendered it completely immobile, there was no obvious reason that he should want to do this, but evidently he wanted to escape. On board the Cougar he would be safe and Drakes good cheer was indication that his plan, whatever it was, had reached its intended conclusion.

"Fraser, you're not getting involved in this are you?" Alborell was growing accustomed to this line of questioning and had evidently prepared himself. Rex Drake looked on with interest.

"Involved, why it's my duty to respect the wishes of a Federation citizen, as it is the duty of any captain to render assistance whenever and wherever he can." Ricky too had prepared.

"I would have thought that that kind of thing would be more in your friend Hayes' line."

"Well normally yes, but Hayes doesn't need an engineer, we do." Ricky suddenly realised what this was all leading up to.

"You're suggesting that we employ this man?" Fraser raised his brow and turned to Drake.

"My associate seems to be of the opinion, mistakenly, that he has some say in the running of this ship." Drake stepped up to Ricky and gave him a close examination.

"Hmm," seemed to be the sum of his observations. The screen crackled again. Fraser walked back across and saw that Captain Hayes had returned.

"Is Mr. Drake there?" Fraser's new engineer certainly was in high demand.

"Who wants to speak to him?" Alborell asked.

"I do," said Hayes. Rex stepped into view.

"It's alright, I'll speak to him." Fraser stood aside and then felt a tug from his left.

"Ricky, what are you doing?"

"Listen, we're not taking passengers, we don't know who he is or what he wants, Simens might even come after him, what then?" Fraser had considered the possibility.

"I want an engineer." Resolute as ever, Alborell pull his arm free of the boy's grasp.

"You want your head examined." Ricky walked away with no prospect of his concerns being addressed.

Drake called the Captain over.

"Hayes says he wants to speak to you now." Fraser knew that Hayes alone held the key to the success of this scheme.

"Robert," Fraser started, but he could see that the matter was a little more serious.

"Captain Fraser, you're sure you're willing to take this person on board your ship?" Fraser nodded. "Mr. Drake is satisfied with the arrangement, I see no reason to interfere." Fraser allowed a smile to cross his face. "Be warned Alborell, Simens won't like it and I can't follow you around forever," there was a genuine concern in Hayes' voice.

"I understand, I'll be careful." Fraser had learned that art quickly over the past week.

With a customary shake of hands, Drake announced that the deal was struck. Once on the bridge Fraser asked that the shields of the Alliance be retracted, the Alliance duly complied with the request. In minutes the SS Cougar was back on course. Ricky was no more upset than he had been, Jannel welcomed the new arrival and Fraser had found himself an engineer.


As the newly appointed crewman placed what few belongings he had into his assigned quarters, the others aboard the Cougar slept. Ricky was still very uncomfortable about being so near to a, albeit receding, Starfleet ship and his slumber was fitful. Being here went against everything that his instincts were telling him, he felt manipulated. Jacs had pushed him into this by devious means and he would pull him back again by the same method if necessary, just as Anson Jacs did with everyone. That was how Jacs worked, layer upon layer of people like Ricky, he had a little something on all of them, and they in turn served to strengthen his grip on still more people. The fact that Fraser must remain unaware of this and that he continued to ignore Ricky's advice increased his frustration further.

Jannel's life, however, could not be more different. She slept comfortably in the room that she had once considered temporary. Each new day since she had arrived at the Starbase seemed to leave her more exhausted. She dreamt of adventure, both experienced and anticipated. With threat of capture and the promise of reward came a longing for more excitement, surely this was what she was meant to do, she thought, where she was meant to be. The stories that her Father used to tell her were at last becoming real, and she realised what she'd been missing all this time.

Fraser, also tired by the days events, took a few hours of rest before his shift on the Bridge. The term was a little misleading as the concept of 'shifts' aboard a vessel usually implied a reasonable crew, but despite recent additions, there were no other bridge staff. Alborell, like Jannel, was secretly excited by the idea that their destination was so forbidden. He could see the risks, but still believed that the endeavour would be a success. Above all, he had an engineer aboard, and with the Cougar that was a great comfort.

They had left the SS Grenoble in rather a poor state, although Rex had all but admitted to Leery Simens that it was his fault. Fraser still thought it a pity that such a fine vessel should suffer under such a petty dispute. Hayes and his crew had at least tried to set the old ship right, but there was no remedy for its ills and they had resumed their duties, thankfully well away from Eros. Rex seemed to put the incident behind him easily and had concentrated his attention on his new assignment with renewed determination.

By morning he had completed several repairs and made notes on a number of matters for future attention. Fraser was more than pleased with the work and had noticed that most things seemed to be working better than they had done when the ship had left the yards at Asmodeus, although that was no great achievement. It was with the arrival of breakfast that Alborell truly appreciated Rex Drake's labours however. He would not have even dared suppose that the replicator could produce such fine orange juice and the toast and scrambled eggs was so unlike its previous incarnation that it took three full demonstrations, during which the dish was reproduced in front of his eyes, before Fraser would believe that there was no trickery involved in this feat of engineering.

By the time breakfast had been delivered, believed and consumed the aged shadows of the Eros system were on the screen. Here, where so many had died and where none had ventured since, was the small planet that would be their home for the next few days. Quite by chance, as Alborell steadied the ship into its descent and finally towards it programmed destination, it was morning here too. The hot sun was beginning to clear the mists and dew as the heavy metal plates of the Cougar's landing gear sank softly into the sand. All at once the ship and the engines jolted into a state of long awaited rest.

The usual group of interested onlookers had gathered on the Bridge.

"Is it safe?" Asked Jannel, unsure of what it was that had actually caused Eros to be quarantined.

"Of course," Alborell assured, without really thinking too much about it. Just to prove the point he pointed to the small sensor screen in a seldom used corner of the control deck. The display read the planet as clear, as far as it was aware, which was not very far.

"There again, if the thing that killed ten million people was traceable, what use would it be as a weapon?" Ricky commented, aware that the mission would not be called off whatever he said.

"Why would someone attack a planet like that?" Jannel somehow sensed the tragedy of the planet without seeing any evidence of it.

"Some say it was an accident, a ship carrying research material from a Romulan Battle-Cruiser crashed at the spaceport and leaked the metagenic weapon that they had unknowingly salvaged." Fraser could see the taller buildings of the city on the far horizon. "No one really knows what happened, there were no witnesses and no investigation team has dared to look."

The patch of ground that Orrin Davison had selected for the survey was as unremarkable as the rest of the barren desert. As the ramp of the Cougar rattled downwards, the silence that had presided over the plain so completely for almost a century was broken. The ground did not welcome the newly arrived vessel and the air seemed indignant to the people that it had just been introduced to. The light breeze seemed to whisper that there was no longer anything here and the steadily intensifying sun was calling for them to leave.

Fraser ignored all that he saw and put his feelings at the back of his mind. He would let the sun gently roast the newly applied paint-work of his ship and the damp and clammy sand could soak the small pool of water forming under the third pipe in the Epsilon-34 coolant exchanger, he was here and he was staying until his job was done. In an effort to further affirm this he began to set, what he determinedly called, camp. The collection of miscellany and surplus that he had been persuaded to buy in the small yet surprisingly successful general stores at the shipyard terminal, made the surroundings seem a less hostile place. Their shapes defied the unyielding flatness of the plain and the various colours and sounds that they added to the scene were somewhat comforting.

Much of the mildly impressive equipment was either too complex, inappropriate or broken than Alborell remembered it and many of the wild and inaccurate claims of the salesman who sold it to him seemed to betray the nature of the devices. There was one item of which Fraser could be absolutely sure, however, and its previous dormant state made its activation all the more tantalising.

The 'tank' that had previously occupied the far corner of the cargo bay had an outward appearance that was described by most as horrific. Certainly in a favourable light and at a comfortable distance of, say, one kilometre, the machine could be said to be on the attractive side of hideous, but Fraser knew that it had not been designed to charm the eye of the observer, rather to turn it away in despair.

As a vehicle, the squat and heavy truck was unrivalled. It had no desire to be sophisticated and nothing more than was necessary had been added to it. If it's exterior had at one time been painted, and there could be much debate on that matter, then it had been painted more so that it may more easily blend in with its surroundings than for the aesthetic effect. The actual colour that had been selected would seem to suggest surroundings of a severely disgusting nature and Fraser felt great relief that he had never been to such a place.

Beneath what little paint there was, a number of ineffectual collisions could be discerned in the bodywork. No two corners of the vehicle were quite the same and the large plates of thick armour had been welded together inconsistently and frequently. This thick metal served to further the idea of the vehicle as a machine of war, and like an old retired general, outside of that environment it found blending in difficult.

War had clearly been foremost in the designers mind when he had moved on to design the interior of the tank. Close inspection of the cab revealed cleverly concealed seats. Their disguise had been accomplished by the use of the bottom panels of the cab in their construction and if this was at the expense of the comfort of anyone unfortunate enough to be asked, there were never volunteers, to sit in it, so be it

The abject disgust that Ricky displayed for this misplaced museum piece was increased only when the thick blue oil that covered the majority of the vehicle happened across his sleeve and turned it black. In a quirky way, Ricky smiled at the incident. He had thought that the trip couldn't get any worse. Further cheered by the realisation that his presence was again unrequired as the Captain prepared to take the small vehicle out to collect soil samples, Ricky returned to the relative comfort of the ship's upper deck. Here, in the newly revitalised Galley, he found his Sister.

She was not alone, opposite her sat Rex and between them both was a plate of something sweet and fattening.

"Of course most of the ships I've been on have kept me busy enough for me to avoid all of this," Rex recounted, "I can't remember the last planet I actually went down to," the Engineer seemed a little happier from the memories that he was turning up.

"Ricky," Jannel exclaimed on seeing her Brother, "where did you say we were going, after here I mean." Ricky sat down, not actually at the table, but near to it.

"Reebos Ceti." The name was obviously familiar to Drake.

"You've chosen a bad planet to trade with kid," Ricky considered the inaccuracies within the statement, but let Rex carry on anyway. "It's a warring planet, a civil war against an imposed government, more a haven for mercenaries and hired guns than merchants." Jannel was starting to look worried.

"You've been there?" She asked calmly. Rex nodded.

"There's a couple of Federation security posts where the Ambassadors try to set up negotiations, we had a trip out there with Pel Ros-Denen once." Neither Ricky nor Jannel had any idea who or what he might be talking about. "It wasn't very pretty, stay away from the Outlands would be my only advice." Ricky remembered hearing about the area in the study that he had made of the planet when hearing of his assignment from Jacs. The Outlands were vast unprotected areas of the world that lay beyond the safety of the few cities under government control. He wondered how long it would take Rex to realise the awful truth of their mission.

The Engineer continued in his retrospection.

"Me and my buddy Harlech didn't care much anyway, we knew there was a pretty good supply of whiskey on the station, at least more whiskey than there were whiskey drinkers." Drake laughed, it took them quite by surprise, "nothing duller than a week on a Federation station, there's free advice." Jannel smiled, without really knowing why. Ricky decided to ask the next question.

"What do you know about the war on Reebos Ceti?"

"Plenty," said Drake, suddenly discarding his verbosity. When the silence had become sufficiently awkward he continued. "Oh, it's a dirty war, there were agreements once but neither side cares much for them now, just as soon as a new treaty's signed it gets broken."

"Sounds awful," said Jannel.

"It is, the civilian forces constantly attack the heavily defended towns and cities, while the government armies try to find out where they're holding out, superior numbers against superior defences." Ricky could see why Anson Jacs was so interested in the whole affair. "Then of course there's the mercenaries, they don't much care who's they're fighting for, so long as they get paid." The Engineer took another of the odd looking white sticks from his jacket and lit it.

"I wish we didn't have to go," said Jannel with sadness.

"Beats me why the hell you are." Rex speculated. Ricky remembered his cover story.

"Just computers," he lied. Rex drew in a couple of lungfuls of smoke and then slowly blew a thick plume back into the air.

"Computers, funny place to take computers." The smoke drifted slowly upward.

"Well Drake," Ricky asked as disrespectfully as he could, "what do you know about AMP grenades?" He assumed that he knew something, Rex seemed to know a little about everything.

"Antimatter Personnel weapons, a little." Another puff of smoke issued from Drake's mouth, clearly he was thinking.

As a matter of interest, Ricky looked up at the environmental sensors in the ceiling. His limited knowledge of the ships operational procedures told him that some sort of emergency should have been called when smoke rose into the intake vents, but it seemed that Drake's work had not been strictly confined to matters of great importance.

"Have you been to Yal Parmin?" Ricky asked.

"Yes, don't tell me that's where you're going." Ricky didn't.

"We also have a delivery in Gleem." Drake obviously knew quite a lot about this subject, enough to know that something was wrong with the situation, very wrong.

"Gleem?" Said Rex in repetition. "Yal Parmin?" He added, moments later. Ricky waited for something more helpful.

"What's wrong?" Said Jannel. It was refreshing to have a direct question.

"Wrong, I'll tell you what's wrong, wrong is handing out dangerous weapons in a war with no rules, to both sides." A deadness permeated the air. "Captain Fraser could be responsible for the deaths of millions."


Slowly, and with appropriate care, the Lieutenant began to climb the access ladder towards the dark recess at the top of the Jefferies tube. When the hollow clanking sound, made by his feet on the metal bars, had stopped, the voice of a female called up to him.

"Report Lieutenant," the voice echoed.

"I believe I have found them sir, but I will need to remove a number of sub-systems before I am certain." The officer carefully deployed his tricorder whilst holding firmly onto the ladder. He disliked heights, Commander Gerros Carter, however, disliked rodents, and she outranked him. They had picked up the Hang-Rats along with a freight consignment at Ventus IX and all attempts to remove them had so far been ineffectual. The subsequent pursuit and attempted capture of the creatures had been the single most exciting event on-board for quite some time.

Hang-Rats were not pleasant creatures, and this was not simply an opinion. They would probably admit it themselves had they the ability to communicate with their pursuers. They seemed to be proud of their disgusting life-style. They thrived on everything that was repulsive and filthy and seemed to generate more of their own squalor whenever the opportunity arose. In one way though they had provided a service to the crew. Over the months of inactivity conflicts had arisen amongst the crew, none had become serious, but the atmosphere had been thick with tension. There was now a common enemy, however. The rodent visitors may not have been Romulans or Cardassians, but they served as well in channelling the aggression of the hundred or so crew of the USS Liberator.

Carter, on occasion, found Lieutenant Harno's temperament annoying. His attention to detail could be stupefying, his rigid application of regulations trying, and yet at other times, like now, those same traits could be put to positive use. "They seem to have made a nest," said Harno, unsteadily, "I think one may even be pregnant Captain." The sound that Commander Carter made suggested that this news was not welcomed. She called him down again and a minute or so later a somewhat relieved Lieutenant Harno stepped out into the corridor.

Being a small ship, the Liberator was the kind of place where news spread quickly, and this had obviously been the case where the Doctor was concerned. Chief Medical Officer Sharpe was on the lookout for patients again.

"Has anyone been bitten?" He asked, hopefully.

"Almost," replied Commander Carter, "but I managed to hit it with my phaser." Harno was quick to react to this seemingly outrageous statement.

"I do not believe that firing a phaser into plasma conduits was a wise course of action Captain."

"Who said I fired." For the moment, Harno remained silent. "Well, I'll leave the matter in your most capable hands Lieutenant, please inform Mr. Reeves of your progress." Without further consideration to the matter, Carter began to walk towards the turbolift. Doctor Sharpe followed.

"I think I'll go mad if this goes on," said Carter after entering the elevator and stating her destination to the computer.

Over the last twelve months the Liberator had been running components from the small industrial base at the unremarkable Atson colonies, on to the large Starfleet production facility on the high profile pleasure planet Ventus. A round trip that took one-hundred and twelve days. This trip was their third, with another thirty-four days between them and Ventus, where they would turn around a come straight back, it was not likely to get much more interesting. This, thought Gerros, was command, what she had worked for all those years, what she had spent her life in the pursuit of. Big deal.

"Perhaps if I poisoned the water supply," said Sharpe, only half joking, "or broke out one of the less serious viral strains from the lab." They had reached Carter's quarters, where Gerros often shared an hour or two with her fellow officers.

"I talked to Henson this morning," she continued, "it looks like we're on this assignment for at least another eight months."

"Does he know what this is doing to the crew?" Protested the Doctor. Carter walked over to her mirror. "Crew morale can't get much lower."

"Until there's another ship on Merchant Marine Command we'll not be reassigned," satisfied that her appearance was satisfactory, Gerros sat down, "until then we'll just have to keep the crew busy as best we can." Sharpe wasn't convinced.

"You know I swear I saw Harno reading something from the recreational database the other day, he switched the screen back to tactical as I walked by of course."

Carter raised a smile and looked out into space. Lately she would have to admit that this was all getting to her too. Even with the steady supply of local information and security updates from Starfleet there was not enough to stimulate her, once highly active, mind. She remembered the time when she had been in charge of a security department aboard a large ship in Deneva Sector. A day's work regularly lasted for twelve hours and nearly every month an away mission came up on the roster. The memory made her boredom all the more acute. She slumped into a chair.

"I look forward to reading your report on that one Doctor."

"Reports, do you remember them?" There was a natural pause in the conversation, almost as if they had been waiting for the First Officer to cut in from the Bridge.

"Captain?" Carter sat up straight, not quite sure what to say, not daring to presume that there was suddenly an emergency.

"Bridge, what's the problem?"

"Sir, I think you should come up here and see this, there's something on sensors."

It didn't take long for Carter and the Doctor to make it to the Bridge, and the situation was quickly assessed. It was not a false alarm, there really was something on the sensors that was not supposed to be there.

"As you can see Captain, its course leads it to the planet at the centre of the screen." Locke, the second in command, zoomed the image in closer. Carter saw the red band around the planet on the navigational display and secretly prayed that the ship wouldn't turn off course. "The ship refuses to respond sir, it will be in-system in less than five minutes." Carter strolled across to the command chair, never before used to issue any order of significance. Somehow she felt the ship moving beneath her, she could feel it pitching and rolling through the waves of the sub-space ocean, if only there had been sub-space sea spray to match. With composure and with pride, Gerros Carter issued her command.

"Helm, set course for Eros."

To be continued...

Copyright 1997 by Mark E. Cotterill

Mark can be reached at: garak@globalnet.co.uk

Aphelion Letter Column A place for your opinions.

Return to the Aphelion main page.