OUTER ZONE

An original fanfiction serialised story (© the Author) based on the Star Trek (© CBS Studios) franchise, (canon) set in uncharted space at the edge of the Galaxy (dubbed the Outer Zone) around the time Starfleet entered into hostilities with the Dominion.

Last time on ST:OZ…

Despite engineering setbacks the venerable and poorly maintained SS Fantasy has finally made good its escape from Vekarian space, though not without further loss of life. In addition, two of its crew, Lirik and Reb, became separated from the Fantasy in the Runabout Hudson when they were spotted by long range T'Kani patrols.

Lirik successfully led the patrols away, leaving the Fantasy safe but adrift. After an adventure on a nearby M-Class planet which nearly cost them their lives several times over, the two compatriots managed to shake off the T'Kani and make their way into the vast fields of asteroids prevalent throughout the local region of space.

While the two compatriots try to find a way to locate the permanently cloaked Fantasy, Christian and the crew continue to make repairs.

Main Players:

Captain Christian – Starfleet Captain, newly promoted; ex-Engineer; he had been en route to his first command on the USS Firefly posted to the Outer Zone, but instead found its wreckage close to the mouth of the wormhole, destroyed by the T'Kani; in recent months his father was driven insane and mother killed after accidental prolonged exposure to a Medusan. In agreement with Commodore Jackson, he is taking the centre seat on the Fantasy, although she made it clear she still outranks him…

Reb – a pilot for hire who was only in the Outer Zone because he had been transporting Christian there in order to avoid a smuggling charge. His mother was Human, father Ferengi. He has had to find his own way into adulthood and has experienced many setbacks along the way, the last of which was losing his Pod in the T'Kani attack and winding up in the company of the other survivors.

Commodore Jackson – Starfleet regional HQ commander most recently assigned to the Outer Zone; veteran officer, lacking in starship command experience, but is the senior officer present among the survivors. She has agreed to be Christian's Executive officer.

(Lieutenant Jackson – the Commodore's son, a security officer who had been assigned to the docks when the T'Kani strike took place; he is missing on Helub, presumed dead.)

Lieutenant O'Hara – Starfleet medical officer, former Marine medic, not quite fully qualified MD; had been romantically involved with Lt Jackson, the Commodore's son, before the attack. Has already locked horns with Christian and Jackson, and is exasperated with her lack of supplies and equipment. She has a group of volunteer helpers and they're doing everything they can for their patients.

Ensign Collard – French Canadian Starfleet security officer, recent Academy graduate, green as heck but keen.

Hedra – an Orion thief; when the invasion took place, Collard had been trying to apprehend her, but was wounded – Hedra made sure the two of them made their escape with the rest of the survivors, though the two don't get along. Hedra is proving herself to be useful with computer systems, much to Collard's ire.

Lieutenant Commander Kohl – Starfleet Engineer, he had been the one to discover the passenger liner, bit of a nerd; technically he is awol from his own ship the USS Draco; led the survivors to the vessel. Is working harder than he has ever done in his career to repair the SS Fantasy.

(Minister Re Lorken – Qovakian politician of Vekarian birth allocated as liaison to Starfleet; to her surprise she had been assigned to assist Kohl in his quest to find out if a ship from Federation space was present in the Outer Zone; she was even more surprised they were permitted to go to the former T'Kani facility to investigate; she had been spooked when she discovered a flag there, the T'Kani Flag of Invasion, staked to the floor of the hangar by an Ore Challenge Stick – the Ore were a nomadic people who during the previous occupation had joined the resistance movement, having been attacked by the T'Kani, helping it to succeed, but who were believed to have been wiped out in the process; while in the facility investigating the Fantasy's existence, the Runabout Hudson had disappeared, but later was found aboard the Fantasy, evidently 'stolen' by the Helan, for reasons as yet unknown. She left her diplomatic bag aboard the Runabout Hudson, and in it several encoded transparencies that have given Lirik cause for concern.)

Yeoman Lirik – Starfleet Diplomatic Corps, long serving primary aide to the Federation delegates; part-Medusan, wears an environment shield to protect others from his nauseating ambient energy; escaped with the rest of the survivors. He's proven himself an enigma, being familiar with a range of disciplines, all of which have intrigued Captain Christian.

Ambassador Narli – Andorian Trade delegate, old sparring partner of the Yeoman's; was elsewhere when all the other delegates disappeared from Helub just before the attack; made his escape with Lirik. Not trusting of Christian's ability – or anyone else's for that matter.

Professor Karim – Vulcan Science Academy; Human, but raised a Vulcan; she and her assistants helped Narli and Lirik to reach Helub during the attack where they made their escape with the others. (Note I created this character's background, Human science specialist raised on Vulcan, in about 1985 when I first devised this story)

Cally Warnerburg – retired Starfleet engineer; survivor who has volunteered to help Kohl in the Fantasy's engine room. Injured in the previous episode, but recovering well.

Murat – a Romulan engineer, separated from his crew found himself among the survivors; was volunteered to help Kohl, and saved the ship from imminent destruction in the process. Was injured, now making a recovery.

Jaz Lepraniem – entrepreneur, survivor and former engineer who volunteered to help Kohl. Jaz was sadly killed in the last episode, hit by an exploding plasma conduit. RIP.

Karless, Kluless and Kidron – three Klingon warriors separated from their brethren on Helub, reluctantly made the escape with the other survivors but keen to do their bit.

Ganhedra – leader of the Helen, the group of OZ aliens found living aboard the SS Fantasy; an odd man with a mysterious air about him.

Vostaline – daughter and heir to Ganhedra.

Fraxon – Vostaline's 'little' brother; evidently the Helan are immune to Lirik's ambient Medusan energy field as the Yeoman found out when the man hugged him.

SS Fantasy – an enormous, largely submarine-shaped passenger liner over a kilometre in length, 47 decks deep, comprising three main sections: the Command Yacht, the Command Section, and the Passenger Section, the largest section of the vessel – the latter is currently sealed off and impenetrable. A legend in its own time, the formerly bright, white vessel is now entirely covered in a mysterious black substance that renders it 'cloaked'. It is in much need of repair. It is packed full of an assortment of items that were destined for the Federation archives when it vanished.

EP 4 PROLOGUE

28 DECEMBER, 0800 HOURS (FANTASY TIME)

USS HUDSON, STARFLEET RUNABOUT (DIPLOMATIC), ON THE BORDER OF THOLIAN SPACE

The Starfleet runabout Hudson came to an abrupt stop amid a slowly moving asteroid field.

"Runabout log, supplemental. For the last two days the Hudson has been following a narrow corridor between the Tholian border and a vast range of asteroids in Qovakian space. According to the navigational files we downloaded on the mined planet it should be clear space ahead, but unknown forces have caused the asteroid range to drift across our path and into Tholian territory in all directions. It's doubtless to do with the destruction of the Vekarian wormhole.

"We're still hopeful of making a rendezvous with the Fantasy, but we are now faced with three choices. Either we go back the way we came and find another more circuitous route. Or we try and navigate a course through the active asteroid range and into clearer corridors of space beyond. Or we could attempt to go around it by way of Tholian space."

Reb's hacking cough stopped Lirik from elaborating on his train of thought as the younger man entered the cockpit area wearing only a pair of green shorts patterned with little yellow pill-shaped cartoon characters dressed in blue dungarees. The gaudy undergarment was tight, threadbare and torn in places.

Lirik smiled at the scrawny, barefoot, yawning, mad-haired near-naked half-Ferengi shifting from one foot to another on the cool deck, his arms folded closely about his torso in an attempt to keep the bed-warmth with him. Squinting through sleepy eyes, Reb was then aghast.

"Where are we?" he peered out at the huge range of asteroids filling the view through all surrounding windows.

Lirik nodded at the other man's lower portion. "Nice kaks."

Reb wasn't sure how to respond.

"Your underpants, Reb… they're quite… unconventional."

"Vintage Terran, actually," he said proudly, adding for emphasis, "very rare. Won them in a game of chance on Lappa IV. It's one of the few things I still own, no thanks to Captain Christian."

Lirik noticed that unlike most Ferengi, Reb's human DNA had given him small patches of dark, downy body hair. The man was wiry but not muscular and he guessed he either ate little or had a naturally high metabolism. Instinctively the Englishman glanced at his own rounded stomach feeling a pang of jealousy as Reb flopped into the co-pilot's seat, cocking one leg over the arm.

"So? Our location…?" Reb repeated, checking the nav display for himself and seeing the overlaid map no longer matched the way forward.

They'd been taking turns piloting the ship since leaving the mining planet. Lirik called up the night's flight path to show his compatriot that their situation had been unavoidable.

"As you can see from the map it should be clear space ahead," Lirik stated aloud, as much for the duty log that was constantly recording the cockpit area. "But for the next few hundred thousand kilometres the whole region has shifted directly into our path, blocking this corridor of space. I'm afraid I was forced to take us into the field - it was either that or encroach on Tholian territory and risk a confrontation. But according to the computer, most of this region is growing denser and increasingly perilous as gravitational influences of the larger objects affect the trajectory of the smaller ones."

Reb scanned the local space, gradually increasing sensor range. Because the asteroids were too densely packed and active above, below and to port, with the exception of Tholian space to Starboard their only possible continuous course would have to be onward. But where it was relatively navigable for some distance, as Lirik had said, it soon became far more chaotic.

"We have an important choice to make and we need to make it soon, my friend," Lirik prompted.

Extending sensors to maximum Reb considered it would take an inconceivably long number of hours of concentration to navigate through it all, on top of which their chances of survival would be greatly reduced the longer they were within the fields. Reb also realised that if they didn't turn back right away, their way out to aft would soon be closed off by the movement of the surrounding fields anyway. Slumping back into the cool seat, then shuffling forward to see the face of the other man, Reb deferred to his associate.

"So what do you think we should do, Yeoman?"

Lirik smiled to himself. Although the two weren't the best of pals, barriers had been broken down during the last few days and Reb had come to grudgingly accept Lirik as leader. Regardless of that, Lirik conferred with Reb in all the decisions he made, and while his counsel wasn't always on point, Reb's piloting flair had certainly helped them out on more than one occasion where isolated eddies of asteroid field had unpredictably collided scattering tumbling debris across their path.

During moments of down time the Yeoman had tried to get Reb to open up about himself, but he merely told him about a variety of well-rehearsed and unlikely sounding escapades, portraying himself as a dashing, rogue freelancing pilot ace. Lirik didn't hold it against the man - he himself had opted to talk about work, recounting vague details of past assignments rather than more personal details. Perhaps they would bridge that gap another time. Lirik hoped so. Despite their vast differences, they were both men who'd lived a life of mixed heritage that always presented issues, and they probably had more in common than Reb would freely admit – their love of holo-D&D if nothing else.

The main topic of conversation the two men regularly returned to was the T'Kani, the attack, and to share what sparse information they'd learned about the people they'd met aboard the Fantasy. Knowing little about it, Reb wanted to learn more from Lirik about the Outer Zone, and Lirik in return wanted to hear more about the Captain, given Reb had spent some time with him. Both shipmates also occasionally mused on what kind of reception they would get from Christian and the others if they ever managed to return safely to the ship.

"Even if the asteroid fields calmed down somewhat, it would still be our longest route to clear space; two perhaps three days?"

"Or more, and with continuous manual piloting for that whole time, I hasten to add," Reb added hastily.

"And the deeper we go in, the less easy it will be to navigate," Lirik punched up alternative courses.

"Up or down is almost the same as ahead. The route to port is a lot denser already, far more active and dangerous, but also considerably shorter across at a point not too far away from our current position."

Reb narrowed his eyes at this veiled suggestion, but Lirik continued.

"If we left soon, all being well we could make it through to that large corridor of clearer space by tomorrow morning."

"'All being well'?!" Reb scoffed and called up deeper scans of the latter flightpath, the display screens full of the seemingly infinite number of asteroids coursing past each other, tumbling, impacting and ricocheting at great speed. It stretched for many screens, too many despite Lirik's enthusiasm.

For a moment, Reb wondered what cataclysmic destruction must have created such an immense asteroid field in the first place. As he panned out and scanned all the surrounding areas, the nearby clear space of Tholian territory seemed far more appealing, but he could easily guess what Lirik would say to that suggestion. He jumped back to the proposed flightpath, but it seemed an impossible ask. Reb shook his head.

"I'm sorry, Lirik, I've never piloted anything that intense before." He turned to face the Yeoman, aware his body was responding to the cool air and trying to cover up his wrinkles (a Ferengi sort of goosebump). "Well, not for long periods. But in a runabout, I'm not even confident it would be viable."

Lirik raised his eyebrows, then thinking it funny that he should take a slight about his runabout personally. The Hudson wasn't like most other runabouts, after all, but it was also true they weren't known for their tight maneuverability. He pursed his lips and blew long and slow, stretching his arms above his head. Ideally he'd be heading for his berth and a long sleep, but he doubted that would happen any time soon. As he wondered about turning around and heading back to their original co-ordinates, and possibly right into the hands of the enemy, he saw Reb shift the display back to Tholian space and guessed what was to follow.

"We haven't scanned any Tholian ships for the last two days," Reb said.

"I've told you, recent intel indicated Tholians have developed stealth ships that are difficult to detect."

"And you think they'd be concerned with the likes of a small, diplomatic transport such as us given what else has been going on along their border?"

"It's precisely why they'd be concerned with us. It wouldn't surprise me if they are already mobilising their forces in this region. They may even have eyes on us right now."

Reb smiled to himself ironically, shaking his head.

"You recently lectured me on risk. Yes, if we go that route it would be a risk, but we could also travel much faster, be clear of the field in a matter of a few hours. Likely we'd be safely back across the border before they've even noticed we were there."

Lirik pouted. Securing the helm and raising shields as a precaution, he stood and proceeded without a word into the aft section, taking the narrow port side corridor instead of going straight through the middle of the vessel. He passed the musty smelling berth Reb had emerged from and entered the luxurious office/lounge space to the rear specially designed for diplomatic duties. Reb followed him on tiptoe, slipping into his leather boots and wrapping his old, heavy leather jacket around his shoulders en route.

At the food replicator the Yeoman entered a security code and punched in the sequence for a Trakasian coffee, then flopped into one of the velveteen couches. He took a long sip of the minty-tasting, warm, dark fluid and immediately felt the slight head rush that would hopefully aide in keeping him focused and awake for a while longer. Normally such harmless, organic substances were prohibited aboard Starfleet vessels because of their mildly psychoactive effect, but the Diplomatic Corps had their own rules on such things.

As Lirik's sight became sharper, the colours clearer and sounds took on more depth, he followed Reb with his eyes as he entered from the corridor and ordered a bowl of Crunchypops and milk from the replicator. The Yeoman sniggered a little.

"What?" Reb frowned, walking to the small conference table where he straddled one of the seats, munching loudly and dropping a few pops onto the floor, the milk dribbling down his chin.

"You remind me of a ranch hand I knew many moons ago in Wichita," his laughter continued.

"Handsome, was he?" Reb joked.

"In fact he was the most-" Lirik was cut short as the computer tribbled loudly.

"Alert! Subspace Message of unconfirmed origin received," the maternal voice informed them calmly.

Lirik shot a look at Reb. "On speakers!"

Through a haze of static, the message was unclear. It was also very short. Lirik rose and stood next to Reb, silencing his associate's munching with a sharp gesture, and instructed the computer to clear up the signal and repeat it. Hardly a sentence, and Lirik had to ask for a third repetition to catch the words fully.

"It sounded like 'we're here'," Reb offered.

"It did, didn't it? The words were in English, a female, and young, I thought. North American accent I'd say," Lirik discretely fingered the tabletop lcars padd and brought the runabout's enhanced computer core online. "Computer, diagnose signal and theorise on sender."

Reb was a little surprised. "You can do that?"

"Message received on general subspace, all hailing frequencies, broadcast from open space. Origin, 323,498 kilometers, bearing 280 mark 243. Language: English. Regional source: insufficient data. Race: insufficient data. Species: insufficient data. Gender: Female, accuracy 93-97%. Age: insufficient data. "

"That's spitting distance!" Reb said.

Lirik sat down, a little surprised. "English but unknown region? Sounded American enough to me, East Coast rather than West, I'd say."

"There's a difference?" Reb asked taking another couple of mouthfuls of breakfast.

"The diagnostic isn't usually that vague," Lirik didn't understand that. "But was only two words, I suppose. t didn't sound like Jackson, or Hedra, or Collard, or any of the other volunteers to me, although I haven't met them all. And why only say: "we're here"?"

Reb shrugged. "Just being stealthy? Perhaps they're in danger?"

"I think that's a given," Lirik replied, calling up a visual display of the communication, but it didn't help elucidate. He also called up the nav display that highlighted their potential courses.

"That's some pretty cool equipment you've got there, by the way," Reb commented on the diagnostic function.

Tempted to respond with a humorous observation about Reb's attire, Lirik thought otherwise.

"As you said earlier, we haven't scanned any vessels within several light years - I bet my ration of grog that came from the Fantasy. And she's damned nearby. Relatively speaking, of course."

Reb mentally charted a course from the co-ordinates, realizing they were emanating some distance away but on the other side of the dense fields of asteroids.

"Oh, great, and we can't get to her."

"Can't we?" Lirik asked, raising his eyebrows at the pilot in proposition.

For a moment Reb thought it was a genuine question, but the penny soon dropped.

"You can't be serious," Reb said, deflated. "Though I know you are, of course," he said, almost to himself in sympathy.

"It's the most logical choice," Lirik added, but Reb stared at the screen. "We owe it to them to get back, especially if they are in trouble," he emphasised. Reb remained silent. "Do you really want to be stuck on this runabout with me for the rest of your days?"

"Good point," Reb said finally, slurping milk out of his bowl. "Better get that grog out, then." And off he went to find the rest of his clothes.

RUNABOUT HUDSON, 0912 FT

In the pilot's chair of the Hudson, Reb sat fully dressed and clean shaven. He was becoming exasperated with his English compatriot's lack of attention since the hail at breakfast.

"Lirik, I said, are you ready?"

Lirik was concentrating on something in his lap, biting a nail, shaking his head.

"Look at this," he said, passing a small transparency. Reb sniffed it, then sneered at the mass of symbols on the sheet.

"What am I supposed to be looking at this time, exactly?" He held the transparency to his ears, rubbing it between his fingers, causing a quizzical reaction from his shipmate.

Lirik approached the other man's chair and leant over pointing at a number of glyphs. He was overwhelmed by the smell of fresh cologne Reb had applied in great quantities following his sonic shower and shave.

"Did you help yourself to Ambassador Chiva's after shave?"

"Why? Is he going to need it?" Reb retorted.

"She," Lirik corrected, "has that specially imported from the Delta Quadrant."

Lirik remembered briefly all the lost Federation representatives he had accompanied to the Outer Zone. Chiva herself was a tough cookie, as were a few others among the group, though there were others who were not nearly as strong-willed. "These are Federation symbols. See here - the Federation of Planets insignia there and the Starfleet insignia there. These look like flight plans, and these… these look like the symbols of the Cardassians, Andorians and the Dominion."

Reb curled a lip. "In a certain light, perhaps. To me they are more childish scribbles."

Lirik took the transparency back. "Since I've been in the Outer Zone I've read up on bits and pieces of local culture and history. The original Qovakian written language comprised iconographic symbols in conjunction with a kind of written shorthand, exactly like these symbols here. I'm guessing with these codes and markings that this is some sort of official communique, but I don't understand why the aforementioned races would be singled out. I can't make out the rest of the glyphs – the universal translator can't work it out either without a better frame of reference."

"Really," Reb said disinterestedly, then gave a worried look at the sensor panel. No alarms had sounded and yet it seemed as if shields were going offline and two objects were rapidly approaching the runabout from behind without the proximity alert sounding. "Er, I think we've got incoming."

"Oh!" Lirik sensed as much just as the runabout bucked violently, then less so a second time, knocking them around in their seats. Alarms sounded, though there was no apparent damage in their vicinity.

Before either could speak, they saw two short gaggles of Starfleet escape pods bounce off the hull and topple end over end above and in front of them, then fire thrusters to level off and come about where they rapidly joined into one long gaggle.

"Did they just ram us?!" Lirik asked, surprised and slightly impressed. He checked damage control – negligible, only a few dents in the specially reinforced hull. Reb was too confused to respond; the computer readout showed that somehow whoever was in the pods had managed to use access codes to drop their shield and override the proximity alarms; a canny move. Lirik punched the hail:

"Attention Starfleet escape pods, what the hell are you playing at?"

There was a moment of silence, then a male voice said with an Eastern European lilt.

"You're Starfleet?"

Lirik exchanged a look with Reb. "Seriously?!"

He scanned the seven pods joined in lateral mode.

"Just the two of you? Where's the rest of your crew?"

Reb watched as the computer display confirmed two humans, one tall, broad male, the other a smaller female with weaker life signs.

"Can you beam us aboard? My associate is injured," the male voice said.

"Stand by."

Checking the sensors for any anomalies, Lirik nodded at Reb briefly in silent agreement, then walked to the transporter console. Fingers pausing in front of the lcars surface he made an instinctive decision and pulled a phaser from a small compartment there, setting it to heavy stun. Entering a command into the console he disabled all the other phasers in the compartment. Finally before he hit the command to lock on to the scanned humanoids and beam them aboard he activated the armament detection and isolation protocol as an extra precaution, then stood with his phaser at the ready, waving Reb to back away.

Reb looked on with anticipation - and a little hurt at not being fully consulted on this occasion - as two figures materialised on the deck. The male was broad and at least six feet tall, indeterminate thirties or forties, and wore a command uniform with the pips of a Commander. Dark haired, tanned skin with a thick, black moustache that embraced his top lip and jowls to his chin, he seemed to be more South American than European. Thick stubble ranged along his jaw and neck. At his feet lay the familiar grey and gold uniform of a cadet at Starfleet engineering college, a pale and barely conscious Japanese girl.

The tall man scowled at the portly transporter operator pointing a phaser at him. Lirik felt a little embarrassed.

"Apologies." He deactivated the phaser as a precaution, placing it back with the others and bent beside the cadet.

"Get the medkit," Lirik politely asked Reb whilst trying to get a sense of her aura.

The Commander seemed temporarily speechless at the sight of Reb who ambled with gangly steps into the rear of the runabout. He came back almost instantly, the Commander catching a whiff of strong cologne; he assumed that was the reason he felt queasy.

"It's not there, O'Hara must have requisitioned it," Reb reported. Feeling brave he faced the Commander head-on. "So who are you, then? And what happened to you, how did you get all the way out here?"

Lirik was pleased by Reb's boldness, even though it was naive.

The Commander brushed off the over-perfumed roughneck's questions with an expression of distain.

"And you are…?"

Lirik stepped forward, recognising the all-too-familiar tone of this kind of career officer, and immediately anticipated the Commander's likely reactions to the exchange that was to follow.

"His name is Reb, Commander, he is my co-pilot. We were separated from our ship during a recon mission."

"'Co'-pilot?!" Reb scowled.

"Your ship survived the attack?" the Commander was enlivened.

"Yes, but… it's not quite what you think," Lirik said cryptically. "Don't worry, that can wait." Lirik slipped his hands under the Cadet's armpits. "Help me get her in the back."

Hesitating at first, the Commander then picked up the lower half of the cadet with ease, though he couldn't shake his feeling of nausea.

Judging from his rough manner, it seemed to Lirik that he was not overly concerned with condition of his incapacitated shipmate. The Yeoman followed the Commander's eyes taking in the plush interior as they entered the rear of the runabout through the central corridor and placed the young woman on a couch.

"Exactly what kind of mission were you on, the two of you and no ranking officer, all the way out here in a customized Starfleet runabout?" He turned to Reb. "Are you some kind of specialist?"

"Hah!" Lirik blurted out uncontrollably, quickly covering his mouth and noting Reb's hurt expression. "Sorry, Reb, no offence."

"I'll remember that."

The Commander pointed at the red slash on Lirik's commbadge and nodded in recognition. "Oh…I see."

Reb looked between Lirik and the Commander, not understanding. "See what?"

Lirik felt the Cadet's forehead and her wrist for her pulse, but let go when she shuddered and groaned.

"This is a Diplomatic vessel, Commander. I was assigned as aide to Federation Council representatives attending the Trade Conference on Vekaria before the attack."

"You came…from Vekaria?" the cadet said in short breaths, it was noticeably painful to speak. "How bad…was the attack?"

"We heard some of the space chatter following the invasion," the Commander elaborated.

From a wall compartment beside the replicator the Yeoman retrieved an oversized tricorder and removed a medical probe and scanned the woozy Cadet.

"Don't speak, poppet. Just rest. We don't know the fate of Vekaria, but Helub was hit pretty badly. What's your ship, Commander?"

"The Papillon. She was attacked several days ago without provocation during an investigation of a magnetic anomaly. The ship was destroyed almost instantly. They… just… appeared out of nowhere. As far as we are aware, we're the only survivors. I'm Commander Slavich, second officer and head of operations. This is Cadet Yip, on temporary training assignment with us."

The Commander held a hand out to Lirik, who merely pointed at his environment shield controls on his wrist as if in explanation. Slavich wondered if it was why he was continuing to feel slightly out of sorts, and had a niggling feeling.

"Yeoman Lirik," Lirik introduced himself clipping the tricorder shut and putting it all back in the compartment.

"'Yeoman'?" Slavich frowned.

"The rank I had before I joined the Corps, and it's stuck with me ever since," Lirik placed a hand on Yip's shoulder, then withdrew when she winced again. "You have a fever, likely brought on by a combination of mild hypothermia, shock and your various other injuries - you have a minor compression in your head caused by some kind of impact, you have external bruising there. You also have three fractured ribs, a bruised coccyx and some unusual bruising in and around your lower abdomen and crotch area, but I don't believe it's serious. Best place for you is bed."

Lirik helped the blushing and softly weeping Yip to her feet, but she stumbled; Reb jumped to his aid. Casting a sideways glance at the stony faced Commander who seemed more interested in his own thoughts than his shipmate, Lirik steered Yip to the clean, spare births on the starboard side of the vessel.

Shortly after, he tucked her in and turned the bed heater up a notch as Reb departed. When he'd gone, Lirik reached behind a narrow recess and withdrew a small field medkit. He had other secret stash locations on the runabout for different eventualities, though didn't want Reb to know about them quite yet - secrecy was almost second nature in the Corps. He applied the medication with one quick application, re-stashing the small box when done. Lirik then accessed the concealed overhead medical treatment plant, accessed his uploaded tricorder data and set the regeneration nodes to work on the Cadet while she slept.

Before he left Yip weakly smiled at him, feeling a burst of conversation rising - a side effect of the combination drug.

"Thanks, that's much better. I was so cold in the escape pods. Commander Slavich had life support extremely low to conserve energy."

"Oh, dear," Lirik sympathised. "Never mind, you're safe now." He thought for a moment, then asked, "I'm curious to know, Cadet, how did the two of you managed to escape?" He remembered all those other empty pods.

Yip seemed a little confused for a moment. "It all happened so fast, it's a bit of a blur. We… we were together, I mean we were standing beside a life pod, I think. Quite lucky I suppose. The attack was instant, the hull became compromised. I heard the abandon ship. I don't remember much else. The Commander…he must have pushed me inside... I think I hit my head and passed out."

"Of course," yet Lirik was confused. It was true that on most contemporary Starfleet vessels pods were auto-ejected at the last calculated moment for reaching bare minimum safe distance if the ship's computer sensed a catastrophic failure, but normally crew were evacuated in good time before that. If the attack had been instantaneous, likely there would have been only a few seconds to react before the auto-eject was initiated, no more. They were lucky to have been where they were and to have acted so quickly. It was unfortunate no one else had been as fast to react. The young woman was falling asleep and Lirik gave her the gentlest of smiles. "I'll be back to check on you in a while. Rest easy, Cadet."

Lirik checked the regenerator was working efficiently, then made his way back into the aft to find the Commander was not there. Walking more swiftly into the cockpit area through the narrow central corridor he found Slavich had seated himself in the pilot seat and was busy tapping into the computer. Reb loitered in the rear gingerly.

Hearing Lirik approach, the Commander spoke without turning. "You ought to tell your Ferengi friend here that as senior officer present I am the one giving orders now. Damn idiot tried to stop me from scanning for other survivors."

Lirik stepped up to the power grid control next to the airlock and deactivated the cockpit's consoles. Slavich was dumbfounded as his work was wiped from all screens, the displays darkening. He spun around to face Lirik who stood with folded arms, doing his best to seem intimidating.

"Get one thing absolutely clear, Commander. This is a Diplomatic vessel under my command," Lirik measured his tone carefully.

"Yeah, and I'm not an idiot!" Reb chided.

Slavich cracked a sarcastic smile, flashing too-white teeth, ignoring Reb.

"You, a…former Yeoman…?" Then the penny dropped. "Oh, right, the Diplomatic Protocol. Really? Out here? In this situation? Don't you think the senior most officer with more field experience should be in charge?"

"Actually, I do," Lirik placed his hands on his hips, "which is why I'm in Command."

Slavich sneered, shaking his head and laughing to himself. He was one tough cookie, Lirik thought. He decided on a less confrontational approach.

"Commander, you haven't heard our entire circumstances. When we escaped from Helub, it wasn't on a Starfleet ship, we were on an old passenger ship, the SS Fantasy, along with hundreds of civilian survivors. As I've already said, we two became separated from the ship some days ago and we're hoping to rendezvous with them further along their predicted course."

"The Fantasy?" Slavich racked his brains. "That's an old Federation pleasure liner, went missing some… oh, right, so it ended up all the way out here? Wow. That is almost… unbelievable."

"Believe it," Reb said.

"A Starfleet Engineer on shore leave on Helub came across it by chance shortly before the attack," Lirik said, then had an idea. "Unless…"

"That's not all," Reb added, keen to be involved, "he found it in an old storage facility that was used by the T'Kani to impound and sell on all kinds of vessels."

"Yes, and-" Lirik was interrupted.

"And not only that," Reb continued, "she had been entirely covered in some weird black coating that acts like a cloaking field."

"That's right," Lirik confirmed. "She's virtually undetectable."

"Applied by the T'Kani?" Commander Slavich perched onto the armrest of the chair, apparently willing to avoid an argument, at least for the present. Lirik shrugged. "You said 'hoping' to rendezvous with it? Presumably the cloaking effect could make that difficult?"

Lirik nodded. "That, and we're not entirely sure how fast they're moving."

"Or if they're moving at all. She was adrift and in a bad state of repair when we left her," Reb added. "She's not exactly the most space-worthy of vessels."

"There is something else to consider," Lirik flipped the power back on and went to the communications panel on the front dash. He could smell the nearby unwashed odour of a man who had been trapped in a confined space with limited toilet facilities for the best part of a week. He couldn't help notice how sharp the Commander looked for it.

"We picked up this transmission earlier. We think it came from the Fantasy." He played the message two more times.

Slavich checked the diagnostics and nodded his head in agreement. "We detected it also, but as we couldn't accurately pinpoint it we thought it might have been rogue chatter."

"Well we have its point of origin, which is relatively close. We were actually about to start heading there when you dropped by and knocked on the door."

"Yes, sorry about that," he said, distracted by the nav controls. "But according to your proposed course, we'll have to cross through that dense asteroid field to reach them."

"So, does this mean that we are working together?" Lirik slid into the co-pilot seat, asserting his authority.

The Commander locked his eyes onto Lirik's. "I would like to scan for the Papillon first, we may still find survivors."

"From what you said there's little hope of that."

"But even so…" the Commander insisted, staring him out briefly. Lirik stared back, studying the man, then nodded.

"Okay then," Lirik agreed. "Carry on. I'll be right back." And he left Slavich to his work.

Pausing at the rear of the cockpit area the Yeoman watched the Commander work for a moment, then went back into the aft section, Reb following closely behind.

Safely out of earshot, Reb spoke up.

"So let me get this straight, even though a Commander outranks a Yeoman, your Diplomatic Corps status puts you above him?" Reb was confused, yet in a way also kind of pleased that Lirik, the person he knew, seemed to be in charge rather than the other guy who obviously disliked him. Although there wasn't much in it.

Lirik moved quickly about the aft section, tidying up with practiced ease; he was well experienced at maintaining the standards of the runabout's interior for his various top-level charges. He huffed and held up Reb's breakfast bowl and spoon retrieving a few crunchypops that had fallen to the floor.

"I've told you twice already, don't leave your breakfast out - put it in the replicator. If we lost gravity that half-eaten goop could get into systems and cause all kinds of damage."

As Lirik shoved the bowl into the replicator and hit the reclaim command, Reb bounced his head from side to side behind his back, aping the Yeoman's nagging in silence. Spinning around, Lirik almost caught Reb, and there was a brief moment of hesitation before Reb broke the silence.

"Sorry for not having had a replicator in my life for the last who knows how long," he said defensively.

"Look, you were at the Academy, you should know all about the Corps." He entered a few commands on the service board and in a few seconds a small robot cleaning device shot out of its mouse hole home, cleaned the milk-stained area of carpet and returned to its housing, integrating the debris back into the replicator system's matter stores.

"I flunked out, remember?" Reb flopped into one of the comfy chairs.

Lirik fluffed cushions and straightened furniture around him, purposefully making him feel uncomfortable. Reb pulled his most pleading expression and the Yeoman submitted.

"Some of us come from Starfleet, most don't, although each is specially selected by a panel made up of Starfleet's top brass and members of the UFP High Council," he paused and Reb pulled a face, "usually for one unique ability or another. Mostly it's in the field of diplomatic relations, arbitration, negotiation et cetera, but others with varying skills serve as envoys and support aides, like myself," Lirik explained, playing down his role and wiping down the table surface as a distraction.

He paused at the computer interface and speedily called up Starfleet personnel files on Slavich and Yip, scanning the brief details of the younger one in a matter of seconds and reading the Commander's longer but abbreviated service record at speed. Reb quickly stood and leaned over his shoulder, only able to catch some headings, unable to read English text as fast.

Reb was intent upon a straight answer. "You outrank him, though?"

Lirik cancelled the files and went to the replicator where he entered a meal program.

"There isn't a rank as such in the Corps. But in terms of jurisdiction, authority, security and general Starfleet protocol, the Corps is as one. If we didn't have such wide-reaching parameters we'd never get anything done, though we rarely overrule or displace line officers except in extreme circumstances."

Reb watched as Lirik took a plate of steaming stew and a pungent smelling pale green vegetable to the table and laid it out for one.

"Thank you, but I'm really not hungry," Reb said, grinning. Lirik gave him a stare.

"So there's only one rank in the Diplomatic Corps?" Reb asked, leaning over to inspect the food. He cocked his ears towards it.

Lirik grimaced at him in frustration. "Why do you keep doing that?"

"Doing what?" Reb answered innocently.

The Yeoman cast his eyes upward and stopped the line of questioning.

"No, there isn't just one rank. Although I have as much authority in a diplomatic capacity as another Corps member who happens to be, say, a former Admiral or a former Captain. And they would equally be on a par with a Lieutenant, or an Ensign or even a civilian. It can be confusing, I know, but it works. Unsurprisingly, not all of regular Starfleet appreciate us, particularly command officers. I'm hardly surprised at this Commander's reaction."

Reb still didn't understand fully and decided it probably wouldn't help even if he did, though it was at least clear the Commander respected Lirik's authority, even if he didn't personally recognize it.

He followed Lirik back into the cockpit area, hanging back a moment.

"Anything?" Lirik asked loudly. The Commander shook his head. He walked over and took the other seat. "Commander, you must be exhausted, and hungry. A meal is waiting for you back there. Get yourself fed and get some rest, we'll continue the scans."

Slavich sniffed the air that had followed Lirik forward, smirking. "You prepared a gulyas?" Reb smiled - too wide - nodding to the Commander, who stared stony faced at him. "Thank you, but I would rather continue with this. I'm fine."

"You've been living off rations for days. If my scans of the Cadet were anything to go by, you haven't slept much either. You need some proper food and rest, Commander. That's an order," Lirik tried to sound authoritative. Reb hadn't been convinced.

The Commander didn't laugh this time. "Don't push it, Yeoman. You're powers are limited to Diplomatic circumstances."

Raising his eyebrows, Lirik gestured at the walls then himself.

Slavich maintained his position.

"Let me put it another way. You are exhausted, you wouldn't want to miss a sensor reading that could be a life sign due to such tiredness, would you?"

Reluctantly, the Commander rose and made off toward the rear section. Stopping beside Lirik, he faced the man with a flash of anger in his eyes, his breath hot and acrid. "Well make sure you don't you miss any either."

Disappearing into the rear, as the doors closed about him, Reb finally relaxed. "He knows his rule book all right."

Lirik moved into the pilot seat. He checked the consoles and was relieved to find nothing untoward - he wouldn't have put it past the commander to attempt rigging the runabout to respond to his commands alone. "Best keep up our end of the bargain, Mister Rebbik."

He gestured the pilot into the other seat and the two began their scans for survivors, although Lirik paused, wondering if he'd been right to spike the Commander's meal with a mild sedative.

EP 4 ACT 1

DEC 29 DECK ONE, MAIN BRIDGE, SS FANTASY, 0758 HOURS

Captain Christian scratched his newly forming beard as he approached the centre seat.

"Bridge, this is Engineering. Reinitialising the main power grid."

"Acknowledged," Christian replied.

Moments later fresh spawned energy rippled through the decks of the Fantasy, illuminating corridors and work consoles and warming interior spaces. It was as if the entire ship came to life in one big nurturing splurge of power. Then lights flickered, the power grid adjusting to the damaged areas. In many locations circuits overloaded and shorted out, spitting sparks and blanketing rooms in darkness once more. In other systems, the air management and water reclamation plant spat, rattled and clunked behind the walls as damaged machinery received a temporary jolt of power and tried to shake into life.

The half dozen volunteer crew on the bridge seemed pleased enough - some even shook hands or embraced in the more enlivening near-daylight that shone from the wall lighting around them. As power flowed through Deck One, consoles simultaneously flickered on.

"I think the Lieutenant Commander is intent upon a promotion," Jackson joked to Christian as he sank into the main chair.

He turned to her, a little mock hurt. "He had help, you know."

Alarms then sounded from numerous bridge stations, startling some of the volunteers. Warnerburg, who had relieved a sleepy Romulan minutes ago, attended to the workstations on the starboard side of the Bridge in turn, cancelling each alarm as she gave her report.

"Drive systems show full impulse power capability. Start-up diagnostic is reading… four thousand eight hundred and seventy three internal sections in need of general systems repair, though there are a lot of gaps in this data, Captain, there are many areas offline to the diagnostic sensors," Cally said.

Moving along to the life support stations she continued her summary.

"Life support, gravity and environment… nominal. No, wait. The systems are still re-aligning following our re-routing of power back to the main EPS grid. It's working, Captain, systems are adjusting. Wait… There are gravity variables in twenty three sections and I'm getting no life support readings from decks 4, 10, 14, 15 and 28. Minimal diagnostics are available at this time." She turned her head to face Jackson and Christian, a little crestfallen. "Aside from the drive control systems, we're still totally blind to the entire Passenger Section."

'That's most of the ship', Christian reminded himself.

"I have external scanning sensors on line, Captain, limited to short range," Collard said hopping up into the high anti-grav stool and scrolling herself across the broad console. "I'm not detecting any vessels, though I'm only getting intermittent readings due to local magnetic and ionic interference from the asteroid range."

"I concur," Professor Karim said turning from her science station. Captain Christian craned his neck the other way and smiled at the attractive young woman, though she did not apparently react.

Beside her, Hedra could not interpret the scientific data that streamed across some of the active screens and she felt the annoyance show in her face, despite her best efforts. She also felt rather slighted as she could sense that Christian was somehow attracted to this sour-faced fake Vulcan rather than her more obvious attributes. She discretely closed her eyes for a moment and breathed deeply, trying to calm her hormones, reminding herself this was merely her conditioning getting the better of her.

Christian nodded to the Andorian Ambassador who was casually reclining in the communications chair with arms folded and legs crossed. The alien was able to control his own hair growth and had opted for a slender Van Dyke beard, slashes of white amid his deep blue contours. Narli reported without checking his controls.

"Subspace frequencies remain open, Captain, no recognisable hails."

The Captain swallowed. The Ambassador had said little since coming aboard, yet performed a more than proficient role at the communications station. There was clearly more to the older blue skinned man than met the eye. Narli cocked his head, as if reading the Captain's thoughts and Christian rose from his chair quickly.

Walking to the station Kohl had identified as the Purser's, also behind Narli and out of his line of vision, the Captain studied the strange configuration of display monitors.

"This station shows some internal sensor readings," he turned to Collard. "Are you getting any of this, Ensign?"

The youthful blonde French Canadian flushed a little and progressed her way back across the security/tactical console, searching for the internal sensor readouts. Finally she came across a blank part of the LCARS surface that wouldn't respond.

"I don't think internal security is patched in, Captain."

"See what you can do about that," Christian turned back to the readings. "This appears to be displaying multiple lifeforms on several of the decks, presumably our people. It also shows some damage to the outer hull. A number of lifepods are missing. That's odd, these command section deck plans are different to the actual deck space I've seen."

"Captain, you'd better look at this," Collard beckoned Christian, who was joined by an intrigued Commodore Jackson behind the Ensign's anti-grav chair. "If this is right, the bulkheads cutting off the forward part of the vessel just retracted. But they weren't sealing off the passenger section, rather they were sealing off the forward part of the Command Section and the computer core. Maybe some sort of automatic isolation protocol."

"They must have been released when main power was fully restored," Christian surmised. "Miss Hedra," Christian turned to the voluptuous Orion who smiled at him so warmly he felt nervous butterflies, "is er… is the main computer back on line?"

Hedra turned to the science station, nudging the engrossed Professor to one side with a shove of her arm.

"The main core remains off-line Captain. As the girl suggested, it's in isolation mode," she sneered wickedly at Collard. "Basic functionality across many systems is now available, but nothing more than start up protocols. Local computer nets and individual user stations are active. We could probably reconnect the core at the source – the main control is accessible forward of Command Section Engineering on Deck 26."

Christian considered his options. "Ganhedra, what is our present location?"

Down in the lower part of the bridge, the old man jumped a little in his Helm seat, coming to life at the order as if startled. He switched on the main viewscreen to reveal a forward view from the ship, hardly moving through the asteroid fields.

"The ship is holding course in a slow stream."

"Very well. Maintain heading and inform me of any changes. Ensign, Miss Hedra, please accompany me to the core. Commodore, you have the bridge."

The trio entered the turbolift, Hedra reluctantly, and the Ensign suppressing a smile at the other's lack of nerves. Hedra winced at the slight smell of rotting flesh that hadn't been fully dispelled, and opted to hold her nose for the entire short trip, determined not to breathe.

ENGINEERING DECK, SS FANTASY 0815 HOURS

Less than a week ago, Christian had stood on the engineering deck facing a large bulkhead door blocking off one of the main corridors. Now it was gone, and standing in the exact same position he saw the corridor beyond extend a short distance further before curving off - as most corridors did. Because of the proportionally long, narrow design of the vessel, many of the main passenger corridors meandered along the length of the ship - with the exception of the promenade deck, or so Kohl had explained. Evidently this was partly as a safety measure, though the inherent Starfleet design convention added to the curved, fluid design.

The Captain and his two shipmates were joined noisily by Lieutenant Commander Kohl, sporting his own white-blonde face fuzz. Christian took point, closely followed by Collard, then Hedra and finally the engineer. Nameless open doorways passed them on either side as the corridor arced in, and then out. As with most areas of the ship many of the rooms they passed were stacked with storage crates and other various objects, mostly wrapped up securely with a Starfleet Archiving Certificate slapped on each. As the corridor straightened the walls on either side became glass; they had reached an area clearly designated for retail outlets as through some of the windows they saw fixtures and fittings, empty rails, shelves and even a couple of quaint, vintage manikins. And here once again there was evidence of operational equipment having been removed.

The corridor turned in and other corridors converged, feeling lighter and airier. Collard read the wall signage.

"We're almost there. The bulkhead seems an awfully long way from the core, though."

Christian looked around, noticing clues - spacesuit lockers, emergency equipment hatches, and emergency environmental pods.

"I'd say this was also a designated shelter for passengers and crew."

Collard cried out. "Bloody, hell!"

Before them, the way ahead was blocked with enormous drifts of colourful isolinear chips and various other kinds of data storage cards - some antique – filling the corridor from wall to wall almost to knee height in places, strewn in great piles that drifted and merged; there must have been tens of thousands at least. Carefully stepping and hopping over them, (though having no choice but to gingerly wade through ankle-deep and make a path at one point), the group noticed the shops had become computer storage rooms – also emptied of all their memory chips. One room passed, then another, and another - on either side. Finally, the corridor stopped, opening to wide circular shaft stretching above and below them. Filling the centre was a thick column of computer core constructed entirely of transparent aluminium - its innards on display, and it was an amazing site to behold.

Yet, it appeared that each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of chips that should have been lodged within the core had been removed and dumped in the surrounding corridors. That there were multiple levels with potential for data capacity was one thing. But that it should have been designed in such an impractical way was even stranger. The core itself was entirely visible via transparent decking; Christian counted four levels above and four below.

"This must have been something of a tourist attraction in its own right," Collard remarked, noticing wall-housed seating and simplistic information schematics at various points.

Kohl consulted an information terminal, linking to its data via his mini padd.

"You're right. According to this it was a one off, designed by the Daystrom Foundation specifically for the passenger liner at the request of the owners. It received an upgrade… nine years ago, but I'd say those relay units are about six or seven years old. According to the guide the ship's original core was known as 'The Big Beastie'."

"Big isn't the word," Hedra said, glancing at Christian as she circumnavigated the core centre, glancing up and down. "The core isn't just here," she said gesturing outwardly with her arms, "it's all around us."

Looking around, the group saw the rooms branching off the core above and below contained equally powerful computer equipment - solid monoliths, fused into the floors and walls.

"And would you believe," Kohl said, "there is a duplicate core on the Passenger section."

The others tried to grasp the concept of such a lot of computer power.

"Why the need for that much capability?" Collard asked.

Hedra pursed her lips in thought then said: "There are Holographic emitters everywhere. With a full passenger compliment, that's potentially tens of hundreds of programmes running at once, all requiring a great deal of memory."

"And I suppose all those secondary systems we've been finding would have needed to be running in the background as well," Collard tried to contribute.

Kohl nodded in agreement. "That certainly complies with the nature of the engineering systems on board - back-ups and redundant systems to facilitate the smooth working of all the daily needs of a pleasure liner of this size and capability, and additional layers of safety for the passengers."

"I can only imagine the variety and complexity of holo-interfaces on board, Captain," Hedra moved close to Christian, her left breast softly brushing his arm. He pulled away, at the same time responding with a cheeky smile.

USS HUDSON 0820 FT

"Good morning," Lirik handed a cup of steaming coffee (black and sweet) to Slavich as he yawned and stretched, wiping away the cold patch of drool on his cheek and neck. Abruptly he realised he was naked under the sheets in one of the spare berths on the runabout, and he couldn't remember how he got there.

"What?! How the hell did I get here?" the Commander couldn't help but physically react to the comfy, soothing feel of the bed around his over-exerted body. He wriggled in the softness, stretching his feet and wiggling his toes, despite feeling annoyed. And he reached for the coffee nonetheless, the sheet dropping to reveal his finely honed, tanned and hirsute torso.

Lirik stood so that he towered above the man, his head halo'd by the bright lights of the narrow corridor ceiling behind and above him. He hoped his silhouette would imprint itself in the Commander's brain.

"Don't you remember? We beamed you aboard yest-"

"I mean here in bed, Yeoman," the Commander growled, peering under the covers. "And naked."

Lirik smirked. "You fell asleep at the dinner table and we couldn't wake you, you were unconscious. And your uniform stank to high heaven. I've replicated you a new one, it's in the back."

"Hmm." Slavich gulped the hot coffee down in two big, throat undulating motions. "What's our status?"

Lirik relieved the Commander of the cup. "There's a sonic shower unit right here," he pointed to the side of the birth. "Come forward when you're done."

Before the sleepy man could react, the Yeoman was gone. The Commander tutted in frustration at the impertinent Englishman and slumped back into the soft pillow – just for a moment, he thought. His head felt cradled and relaxed and he almost enjoyed the feeling of being in bed while others took charge. As his eyes wandered to the corridor porthole he saw the asteroid field outside had become much thinner and clear open space lay beyond.

ENGINEERING DECK, SS FANTASY 0823

Leaning on the rail surrounding the core and peering down through the decks, Christian felt perplexed.

"So we've basically got one big floating, over-powered holo-hotel to ourselves. Will we be able to reinstall all these memory chips correctly?"

Kohl was scrolling through one of the displays. "Yes, Captain. I've accessed the schematics, but it will take a lot of work to categorise them all, and more for their reinstallation. Some of the more recent modules aren't so bad, the isolinear chips can be reinserted randomly and will auto-network together."

The German removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes hard. Although he and the other crew had found makeshift berths among the Helan people, as yet no-one was allowed to go outside of the designated safe areas except on necessary ship business. He and others had already expressed a desire to make use of the crew quarters contained in the command section - Christian had deemed it unsafe at this time. What Kohl really wanted, however, was a long, hot, naked soak and a soft, clean bed for the night - though he suspected he would sleep for longer than that when he finally got the chance.

Christian noticed the tiring engineer. "We can get volunteers to help. Commander Kohl, can you arrange it?"

"Of course, Captain," Kohl said wearily.

Christian wandered to the other side of the core and into the corridor beyond. Hedra was close behind him. He was totally aware of her apparent flirtation, and he wanted nothing more than for her to leave him alone for the moment. This was hardly the right time, yet he did find her strangely irresistible.

"Ensign, come with me. I want to take a peek at the true bulkhead to the passenger section," Christian turned to the green skinned woman - who had undone her blouse one button further, he noticed. "Miss, you stay here with the Commander. There appear to be a number of areas of the core that have memory intact. Access the main control room and see if you can re-initialise the core, such that it is, then we can at least see what additional command functions we have available."

Collard and Hedra snarled a little as they passed each other, and Christian was a little surprised at the Ensign. Regardless, he carried on forward, noticing the Orion moving cat-like toward the German engineer.

RUNABOUT HUDSON 0825 FT

Slavich had barely dressed as he awkwardly stepped into the runabout cockpit.

"Where the hell are we-" the Commander's voice trailed off as he saw the horrific scene through the forward windows. Several hundred metres ahead the charred, decayed remains of the USS Papillon lay smashed in the side of a large asteroid, a bloom of wreckage all around it. One partial nacelle was visible, hanging like a busted limb.

Lirik stood from the pilot's chair. "I'm sorry, Commander, there are no survivors. We scanned all night looking for other escape pods. We found a few, but none were occupied."

Slavich swallowed hard; the crumpled mass of wreckage said it all. A seasoned officer, the thought of his fallen comrades was still too painful to hold back. A single tear coursed its way speedily down to his cheek, causing Lirik's chin to quiver in emotive response. The Commander stiffened his neck, speaking the words slowly.

"Are you… are you absolutely sure?"

Lirik and Rebbik held each other's gaze for a second before he turned back to the Commander.

"We scanned the ship extensively, and the surrounding space and we found remains of 135 bodies."

"That's still 85 unaccounted for," Slavich replied swiftly, "not including us."

Lirik didn't want an argument, and yet he felt bound to point out the obvious. "The secondary hull was practically vaporised, Commander; there could well have been in excess of 80 crew in that part of the ship at the time."

Slavich barely nodded, accepting the news without comment, and stared off into middle distance. "I'll inform Cadet Lee. Her cousin was aboard."

With that he exited, leaving Lirik staring after him. Rebbik stared out at the crippled hulk of the formerly gleaming Starfleet vessel. He heard Lirik speak to him in an unexpectedly lucid tone.

"You know, Rebbik, this whole situation is really beginning to piss me off."

Lirik joined Rebbik at the runabout's controls, noticing the pilot chuckling to himself, trying to hide it at the same time.

"It's okay, you can laugh in the face of adversity. I'm all for a bit of levity today, and I'm sure they won't mind," Lirik flexed his fingers and activated the narrow band scanners. "Let's scan for any items that could prove useful."

Rebbik glanced tensely over his shoulder at the narrow starboard corridor. "Shouldn't we check with him first?"

Lirik wanted to say 'no', but the thought of a further confrontation changed his mind and he shut down the scanners.

"I need another coffee."

CENTRAL COMPUTER CORE, SS FANTASY 0900

Lt Cmmdr Kohl carefully inserted sequential isolinear chips into the main core control. Depressing old-style switches that lit lime green, turquois and yellow upon each activation. The room around him hummed gradually to life. Bronze light became golden, then white-bright as LCARs screens materialised on each of the tall, narrow walls of the control suite, and cascades of data streamed down them, overlapping in psychedelic torrents. Kohl scanned the room in awe, overwhelmed by the computer-generated waterfalls dancing light off the surfaces and over his face - he'd not seen anything like it before, and wondered at the other engineering treasures to be found on board.

Hedra stepped through the narrow doorway from the highest platform around the core and joined him in the cosy room, smiling.

"Great job," she complimented him genuinely.

'Tszzzzzchchchc' the sound seemed to come from all around them, a long, deep static sound, but it was not apparent what the sound meant.

"What was that?" Hedra asked.

Kohl shrugged his shoulders and continued to relish the quirky surroundings - it was unlike the Draco or any other Starfleet vessel he'd served on before. The away missions he had been on in the past had excited him most when encountering alien technology, but for the most part, he found engineering life in the Federation was dull and predictable. The technology aboard the Fantasy however was largely old, and it was also quirky, there was a lot of it, and it seemed there was no expense spared on its bells and whistles, unlike on a Starfleet vessel where everything had to be just-so.

Not feeling Hedra's hands squeezing his shoulders, Kohl leaned back into his chair and relaxed, and then the screens all went blank.

ENGINEERING DECK, SS FANTASY

Forward of the computer core, the ambience of the space changed; it became more functional and less luxurious.

"Science labs," the Ensign commented, "pattern buffer stores down that way and transporter controls over there. According to this signage, the science facility and main transporter rooms cover two decks of the command section around here."

The corridor curved in and out once more and as it straightened the lighting - and seemingly all power in the section ahead - was off-line. Collard activated a small pencil-like torch-cutter that she'd found. She stepped into the deepening shadows, shivered and shone the light onto a cold, unattractive metal surface in the near distance.

The Ensign noticed warning signs dotted around. "That's the true bulkhead where separation from the passenger section occurs. There's a manual override."

"Shine the light here, will you?" Christian peered through an open hatch into a power conduit, his hands immediately covered in soot and dust. "There's no power flow down here. This entire section must have blown some time ago and caused a fire. We should get an engineering team down here to repair it, then we may be able to retract the bulkheads and access the Passenger Section."

Collard looked into the shadows and then back down the corridor to the lit section, wondering who had passed this way before her.

Hedra and Kohl regarded the LCARs screens, ominously blank. It was several minutes since the strange sound, and neither was sure what the computer was doing. Without warning, all screens flashed deep red for a couple of seconds, then blanked out for a second time. This time, the room dimmed and died, consoles dematerializing and the lighting going off – the only illumination was from the now active core that poured in from the observation window.

Kohl watched Hedra uneasily.

Behind the Captain and the Ensign the lights in the powered part of the corridor flickered.

"Oh, no, not again," Christian said just as they were plunged into complete darkness, save for the tiny light from Collard's small torch.

"I'll take point," Collard said, taking Christian's hand and leading him in that way that security officers did so efficiently. Christian afforded himself a private smile at the youngster's nurturing attitude.

Kohl followed Hedra to the observation window. The core itself seemed to be glowing from within, a sure sign that it was active. But he didn't understand what the red flash had meant, or why the control room's power had died.

Within the bright light of the core both of them could see a few sparsely placed control chips still intact at various points - like the last few colourful leaves of an autumn tree.

'Fsssss.'

"Did you hear that?" Hedra said to Kohl as she strolled off around the computer core control suite, curiously admiring the plush cream fur and chrome furnishings in the dim light. It reminded her of a cabin hideaway on Orion she'd been taken to in her former existence. It was high in the mountains with the blinding snow outside causing that unique white light to bounce up into the small one-room building.

Kohl was busy trying to use his tricorder to break the access code to reset the command routines.

"Hear what, Ma'am?"

Hedra turned on her heel, pert and surprised.

"Ma'am?" She laughed out loud. "I'm a single woman, Lieutenant Commander. Can't you tell?"

Kohl peered over his glasses at her, but said nothing.

'Ffsssss.'

This time both heard the sound.

"There it is again," Hedra said, pressing her face back against the glass of the small observation window and peering down through the levels of transparent flooring. Decks below, it seemed that people were gathering, dressed in what looked like colourful wetsuits. She couldn't see clearly through the distortion of the plexiglass flooring below.

Kohl noticed Hedra craning to see. "What is it?"

"I'm not sure," Hedra said, then jumped as she saw a flash of weapons fire lash out from the group of similarly clad figures into the forward corridor where Christian and Collard had been headed. A small group peeled off and gave chase in the direction of the weapons fire.

'Fsss! Fssss!' the sound came consecutively from the core below.

Kohl heard the double sound and joined her. He swallowed hard as he saw the armed individuals on the lower deck.

"We're under attack," he whispered, feeling deflated - they had no weapons with them. And they had come so far. He didn't recognise the uniforms - perhaps these were the T'Kani; maybe they'd come from the forward section of the ship when the bulkheads had been removed. Or perhaps they'd disabled power remotely and beamed aboard. Kohl wasn't sure.

"Access crawlway?" Hedra suggested, pulling on his arm and keen to find an instant escape route.

Kohl couldn't think of a better suggestion. The old-style grill in the corner of the room lifted off with ease and he followed her inside, pulling the grill back as it was before they moved off. As she led the way, he felt a sudden rush of sensations that touched his lower belly and made him swoon. He fixed his eyes on Hedra's peachy rear in front and had a whole bunch of inappropriate thoughts.

EP 4 ACT 2

BETWEEN DECKS, SS FANTASY 0922
In the pitch-black, quiet coolness of an access shaft between decks, Collard and Christian stood on the narrow ledge of their precarious hiding place, pressed closely together. The Canadian was clammy with a mixture of fear and adrenalin as she gripped onto the wall's seams and she could feel the perspiring heat from the Captain's toned body through his uniform. She could also smell him, his breath, stale but not unpleasant, and a strong armpit odour; as water was being strictly rationed, and none of the sonic showers in the crew quarters they'd explored worked as yet, it had been about a week since any of the survivors had managed a decent wash, or a change of clothes, relying instead on hygiene wipes and deodorising pads. Collard didn't mind so much, long childhood mountain hiking trips with her brothers and father had exposed her to far worse, and it almost felt familiar.

Collard's forehead brushed against Christian's chin, prickly with stubble. "Were they T'Kani?" she asked in a barely audible whisper.

The Captain lowered his head, his lips touching the fine strands of hair and his warm peppering breath tickling around her ear. "Yes, I think so." Christian wasn't absolutely sure, they'd only seen them briefly in the lit part of the corridor – their uniforms were similar to those of the soldiers who had attacked him on Helub, but these had appeared much larger physically, presumably more adult, and they didn't have any headgear. Perhaps they were a separate warrior class, he wondered.

Collard looked down into the blackness, not a hope of knowing if anyone was down there or not, but she trusted her keen senses and her instincts. Her hair catching in his beard growth she directed her lips up at him, speaking as softly as she could. "I don't think they followed us, Sir."

She felt Christian move on the ledge, more than she felt comfortable about - it was a drop of about ten metres in the darkness to the deck below. "I think you're right," he said, a bit louder. "We're lucky they called off the pursuit."

Collard squirmed, cocking her head to hear for any unusual sound. "Perhaps they're afraid of the dark? Or maybe there's something in the darkness they're frightened of." Inwardly, the Ensign laughed at herself - was she trying to scare the Captain with her suppositions?

"Maybe," Christian had served enough years in Starfleet to never discount any possibility, "but we appear to be safe here, either way. I wonder how far the unpowered area extends vertically."

Collard recalled part of the deck schematics she had turned to studying when otherwise unoccupied on the bridge. "I think I remember seeing reference to a secondary Bridge on Deck 12, the Command Section's command centre, at the top of the Command section of the ship some way in front of the Command Yacht. If I'm not mistaken that should be almost directly above us."

"Are you sure?"

"I believe so, yes," though she could hear the uncertainty in her voice as much as he could.

"Well, at least it's not too far to climb," Christian said. Turning his head up he saw nothing at all in the looming darkness above. "We should chance using your torch to see the way."

Collard gladly flicked the small device into life, illuminating the shaft walls, which transpired to be of a deep blue colour.

"What's that?" Christian said, then cried out in horror - slamming his hand over his mouth to stop the uncontrollable noise that echoed all around them.

Collard turned the torch toward the Captain and he gestured up into the dark shaft above, still clasping his mouth with embarrassment. She shone the pen up and there the Ensign saw the curled-up brown-black skeleton of a large creature, much like a spider. It wasn't as big as some species she had seen, but this close it was a bit unnerving. Suspended as it was in the thin gossamer of its death shroud, its glossy skin seemed delicate and slender to her. Christian, she observed, had other feelings about the dead life form.

"Do you think they heard you?" the Ensign said, not meaning to criticize the Captain. She wondered if this creature may have been the reason why their pursuers had not followed them - then asking herself how they would know it was there, and why they would be afraid of a dead animal. Collard had to tell herself to shut up, or she would not hear the Captain's reply.

Christian shook his head. "Too late to worry about it now, but we'd better get moving." In his head, he was forcing himself to confront this fear and squeeze past the large insect corpse that blocked his way above.

Collard led, and then made Christian's controlled fears resurface. "Sir, on the commune where I grew up, whenever we found a dead grain beetle my father used to say 'Where there's one, there's more'. Do you think there might be more?"

The young woman was already above the hanging creature, and Christian closed his eyes when moving past the thing himself. "A fair axiom to live by, I suspect. So let me ask you, was he always right?"

The Ensign paused before answering. "Mostly."

"Oh," as the Captain brushed past he felt the unexpectedly light pouch make contact with his butt, some of the gossamer webbing applying itself to his tattered trousers, "that's somewhat hopeful then." The creature's bones made a slight clicking sound as he continued past, causing him to wince and say a private prayer for there to please be no others. * * *

DECK UNKNOWN, SS FANTASY In a not-too-far away part of the Fantasy, Kohl and Hedra sat opposite each other, crouched in the small confines of a maintenance crawlway junction above the computer core.

"So what's the plan?" Hedra whispered, glaring intensely at the handsome German as he in turn tried to avoid looking at her body, she noticed.

Kohl took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. When he raised his head, Hedra was instantly smitten by his almost translucent blue eyes. She had never seen the natural like before up this close, and wondered at her unexpected physical reaction to them. "We should make an offensive move. We have no weapons, but I could do some serious damage in engineering, maybe knock out main power."

Hedra drank in those startling eyes, though she didn't understand his logic. "Okay, for one why would you want to undo all your hard work? And for two, we may be the only people still at large, and I think I can safely say that neither one of us is much of a soldier, do you really think we would get that far?"

"Er, I am Starfleet trained," Kohl said defensively. Hedra wasn't reassured. "Besides, the Captain and Ensign may have got away as well. But no doubt you have plenty of confidence in their skills, don't you?" "Well, maybe the Captain's." Hedra said dryly. She wondered how Kohl had made it to the rank of a senior officer being so woolly. "So how do you propose you and I get there and do this…sabotage, exactly?" His pause was seconds more than Hedra would have liked. "I'm not entirely sure yet. But we both have skills, my engineering experience, your knowledge of systems and computer function. I say we do what we can, safely, while we figure out what to do for the best."

The Orion puffed out a long breath. "It's not much of a strategy, Lieutenant Commander. If the Captain has been taken and we are the only two left, then surely we need to do something to free the others so they can help us take back the ship?"

Kohl regarded his green-skinned companion. "Look, you're right, I'm not a soldier. I'm an engineer first and foremost, but a pretty good one. And you couldn't have found yourself with someone more familiar with this kind of older technology in the entire fleet. Well, one of them anyway. I'm not entirely sure how we do it yet, but if we can make it to an engineering control area I am confident that I can come up with more than a dozen easy ways to cause mischief and hopefully effect an escape for our shipmates."

Hedra raised an eyebrow, skeptical of his bravado. The two sat in silence for a moment. Then she said: "Where did they come from? I mean, they came out of nowhere, didn't they? Without any warning."

"Maybe the T'Kani have other ships with the same cloaking technology as the Fantasy and got close enough to board us," Kohl suggested. "With our own sensors damaged, I'm not surprised that a ship could have crept up on us unnoticed. Or they may have long range transporters?"

Hedra shook her head. "If they already have the cloaking substance, why come after us? We're no threat to anyone, the ship's barely operational."

Kohl replaced his glasses. "Er, she's operating just fine under the circumstances," he said with bruised pride. "Sorry," she said, unapologetically but placating him. "I take it back. But why come after us if it's not the cloak?" "Perhaps there's something else on board they want," Kohl supposed. "Something they could have got hold of for the last five years or more?" she shook her head. "No, we haven't actually seen the cloak on any other of their ships so far. My hunch is this was a one-off prototype and they want it back. Its tactical advantage would be enormous." "A pretty huge ship to make into a prototype," the Starfleet engineer said. "But if they wanted it for their larger battleships it makes sense, I suppose."

Hedra folded her arms, inadvertently pushing her breasts together in a motion that caused Kohl to blush. "You think they may have a way of tracking us?"

"If they devised it, it's possible. Or they may have detected us exiting the wormhole event, or maybe they just chanced upon us by luck. Or… or maybe they were here already, in stasis?" Kohl could think of numerous reasons.

The two paused to think for a while, shifting their positions and glancing at each other occasionally, neither sure whether to speak or to suggest moving on. "Do you think it's by chance that we happened to find the Helan living aboard the ship?" Hedra asked, following a train of thought. "What are you inferring?" "I just find it odd that they chose to hide aboard this vessel – there were hundreds to pick from in that storage facility, why this one? And why choose to reside in such an isolated location in the first place? There must have been other digs to hide in somewhere across the vast area of the port, maybe in the deeper levels or some abandoned facility. Besides, who was it who led us into this area of space?" "You mean your namesake?" Kohl grinned slightly. She tutted, grinned back at him and shook her head. "I know, right? Come all the way to the edge of the Galaxy and find myself cooped up with some old dude who has a similar name to mine. What are the odds?" "I don't sense any malice or deceit from him," Kohl replied. "So tell me, why did they steal the runabout – without you noticing I might add – and leave you and the Minister stranded like that?"

It was an embarrassment to Kohl, even now – that he'd lost his ship, exposed the Minister to potential danger, found himself lost in the tunnels for too long, missed the recall for his ship and made an example of himself at Starfleet's HQ.
"You suspect the Helan of being involved in our current situation?" he asked, but then, "Our trip through the wormhole was hardly their fault."

"We got subspace communications back not long ago, if they are T'Kani agents or sympathisers, they could have sent a signal," Hedra suggested. "It could explain why they were on the ship originally, and why they stole your runabout."

"If we think that then we might as well suspect the Andorian Ambassador, or even Murat," Kohl rested back on his hands. "Or you, for that matter."

Hedra paused, distracted by Kohl's torso and legs. "Who's Murat?"

"The Romulan," Kohl felt Hedra's insistent gaze upon his body and leant forward, inhibiting her view. "Just a kid, really. Very bright. But what matters right now is they're on board, they're in control and we are lucky enough to remain at large. We must use that to our advantage. Come on." He led the way off with a confidence that Hedra only felt in her gut with unease as she followed swiftly behind him, admiring his toned rear end as some consolation.

ON THE EDGE OF IR-KALLA, 1015 The Hudson cleared the straggling asteroids on the edge of the dense, active asteroid field, departing from the USS Papillon's final resting place. Slavich had wanted to use the runabout's phasers to destroy whatever was left of her, but Lirik had refused, claiming it might draw attention. He also stated that seeing as the T'Kani already had access to other Starfleet vessels, there was little point in trying to destroy any technology.

Slavich sat in the pilot's seat, Rebbik in the co-pilot seat. "Mister Lirik tells me it was you who navigated us through the asteroid field. I wish I could have been awake, that must have been quite something."

Rebbik didn't know how to take a compliment yet. "You can watch it on the logs later, if you like."

The Commander cracked a smile, then lost it, chastising himself for enjoying himself instead of grieving for the loss of his shipmates. He peered through the side window to watch the asteroid and his fated ship become a pin-prick in the distance, and then be consumed by the blackness of distant space. Sitting as he did on this small, lonely vessel in enemy space, with only a few centimetres between survival and oblivion, Slavich felt the gnawing feeling of vulnerability that sometimes came as a precursor to the kinds of psychosis brought on by prolonged periods of living in space.

In the rear of the runabout, Cadet Lee was sitting up at the table, bones repaired but still feeling weak and pale save a red nose, and surrounded by an array of boxes and pieces of equipment. A small pile of tissues had accumulated as much from the tears that occasionally came in uncontrollable floods as from the chill that was working itself quickly out of her system. Although apparently healed, Lirik had insisted on applying a small monitoring sensor device to the formerly wounded area of her head, just as a precaution.

Despite her alternating periods of calm disbelief and unrestrained emotion at the loss of her beloved cousin and newly formed relationships on board the USS Papillon, she felt a little soothed by the steady work of this strange Lirik person. Tunic off, shirt sleeves rolled up, he busied himself, arranging the various recovered articles in piles and storing them as efficiently as he could at the back of the ship, though many of them seemed so damaged she wondered what they could possibly be useful for. From time to time she could see the wafer thin environmental shield that constantly surrounded his body shimmer like back-lit glass as he moved.

"I'm sure you've been asked this a lot before, Sir, forgive me. How come you, a Human, are also part Medusan? I can't see how that would be possible," the Cadet sniffed and blew her nose, hobbled to the wall and disposed of the tissues in the replicator. She ordered a fresh replacement set immediately.

"And yet, here I am," he smiled. Lirik stopped what he was doing and looked up, as if he'd heard something. He scowled, then feeling sure, hit his commbadge. "Pardon me gentlemen, would you both please join us in the rear." Lee was rather surprised by his request.

"Maybe you'll hear that story another time, Cadet, but we have some other things to sort out first," he gave a genuine smile. She flushed even more when Slavich entered, locking eyes with him for a moment, then turning away, hiding her distress. Quite by chance, Lirik had caught this action, and fixed his jaw. He often hated it when he was right.

Rebbik teetered by the narrow passage. "Shouldn't someone stay up front? Just in case?"

Lirik addressed the ceiling. "Computer, all stop. Raise shields and extend long range passive scans and inform me of any approaching event."

The computer chirped a quick response. "Commander, you pointed out the Fantasy might have been taken. There's every chance you may be right, but I want to hear why you think we should abandon her without trying to find out first."

Slavich straightened, fresh faced after a quick sonic shave. "I never said anything about abandoning her. We agreed that we'd go with your decision."

"Then why did you just steer us off course?" he asked. Rebbik was shocked - he was unaware of any course change. Slavich wasn't giving anything away, but Lirik knew the truth. "Humans wouldn't detect such a delicate shift, but being part Medusan, I have a strong affliction with the stars. I don't only see them, I feel them as well, and we have moved off course."

Slavich chose to ignore his own revealed deceit and argue the reasoning behind it instead, hoping to save face somehow by trying to prove himself right. "Strategically it would be more prudent to remain undetected. Seek out allies and stay alive."

Cadet Lee chipped in, a weak attempt at supporting her superior officer. "Perhaps some of the Fleet escaped capture and are holding out somewhere nearby. If we could find them-"

"Sorry, Cadet, that's highly unlikely." Lirik paced the floor, thinking of ways to avoid further conflict. "Commander, I get your reticence. But you have to defer to my judgement in this matter. And my authority."

"I agree," Rebbik blurted out.

Lirik wanted to smile, though held it back, deflated by the return of Slavich's mocking expression. He tried to ignore it, putting it down to a bad attitude. "What we represent is hope. The runabout, the four of us and these supplies, will all be of great help to the civilians and to our ship. In a sense, although they don't know it, they're all counting on us finding them."

The air was thick with tension. It was a stand-off, and Reb couldn't tell which way it would go, wondering what his options might be. Before he could think of his escape plan further the Commander spoke.
"Fine," Slavich snapped, "we'll pursue this Fantasy of yours. But not for too long, eh? The longer we're exposed out here, the more risk there is of being discovered ourselves." The Commander displayed a strange, hateful expression. "I couldn't agree more. Commander, I think you should know that I-" "Shall we just get on with it and forget the speeches?" The air was so tense, Reb wasn't sure what this Commander might do next.

"Fair enough." Lirik licked his lips. "Rebbik, take Cadet Yip forward and put us back on the course I originally laid in. I'd like a private word with the Commander."

Rebbik was curious what was going to happen next, but realised he wasn't welcome to hear the exchange. He felt a little hurt at the exclusion, so sulked back to the cockpit with the apprehensive teenager in tow.

When alone, Lirik gestured for Slavich to sit. The big man declined. Lirik moved to the windows, twisting his way through the heaps of salvage. "Tell me again, Commander, how is it that you two were the only survivors of the Papillon?"

The Commander glanced at the Yeoman briefly - Lirik's back was to him, waiting for an answer. He licked his lips and slipped into the nearby chair. "We were just luckier than the others because we were standing beside an escape pod at the right moment."

Lirik shook his head, rolling his tongue. "I don't think so. I'm actually a bit insulted that you assumed I wouldn't work it out." Lirik turned to face him, perching on the sill. "Or did you?" Slavich didn't respond. "Hmm. When we were scavenging for supplies, I scanned evidence of over five hundred impact fractures in what was left of the ship's hull. They all had the same rate of degradation, meaning the ship was hit rapidly, in succession, in a very short space of time. The attack took probably no more than a few seconds in all. That's hardly enough time for the alarm to be raised, let alone for the bridge crew to realise the ship was breaking apart and order the abandon ship, or for the crew to get to their muster stations, is it?"

The two men held each other's gaze, neither wavering, and neither spoke. Eventually, the big man looked away, cradled his hands in front of his mouth and then turned back to Lirik, his eyes filled with moisture and fearful. Lirik finished the evaluation for him. "At the red line moment before the ship was compromised the computer automatically ejected all the lifepods. So the only way you could both have got away before total destruction was if you were already inside one of the pods at the time."

Slavich opened his mouth to speak, but Lirik wouldn't let him start. "No, Commander, no excuses or explanations are needed. The Cadet's unusual injuries confirm it." Slavich hung his head. "We could call it inappropriate, we could call it a breach of several regulations, but when all is said and done you've both survived a terrible, horrific experience. You both exercised poor judgement, yes, but there's no time or need for blame or punishment in our situation. Our crew needs you both, just as you now need us."

Slavich dropped his head into his hands and rubbed his eye-sockets with his palms. "You're ah… you aren't going to report this, then?"

Lirik pursed his lips. "I'm not surprised at that - to hear that your Starfleet record is more important to you than anything else," Slavich wanted to explain himself but was cut off. "I know your type, Mister: career officer, hardened, obstinate and self centred. The truth is both of you will have to live with this for the rest of your lives. And I think that's punishment enough."

The Commander cleared his throat then spoke from the heart. "I keep thinking what might have been had we not been in the pod."

"You'd both be as dead as your shipmates, obviously," Lirik slapped the man on the arm, rather hard, causing his shield to flicker. "Yes, I'll keep this to myself, don't worry. No need to tell the Cadet about this conversation either. Are you both… together?"

Slavich shook his head. "Keep it that way." The Commander sat in sombre silence as Lirik exited to the cockpit. The narrow doorway closed behind, the Commander dropped his head and wept in soft, tight shame and grief.

EP 4 ACT 3

DECK UNKNOWN, SS FANTASY 1020

Captain Christian heaved the pressure door open, unable to control the weighty hatch from beneath as it passed its apex and slammed with a deep metallic 'clunk!' against the wall beside it. Reaching up he hauled himself onto the edge of the shaft exit with his legs dangling below. Collard handed him her torch pen and he flashed it around the warm and humid low-ceilinged octagonal room.

A few metres in diameter, the walls were wet and rusty, streaked brown, green and cream and Christian identified the offending overhead pipe that had been seeping mineralised residue for the past five years or so. Despite the damage and slime-coated walls, there was only a thin layer of liquid held on the surrounding floor.

"This is it," Collard whispered. "By my counting, the hatch to the secondary bridge is above us."

Careful not to slip on the wet surface, Christian stood, anchoring himself to a cold feeling conduit and lent a hand to the security Ensign, pulling her up to join him.

"Another bad smell so soon?" she winced. "Effluent?"

"I think it's an old style waste reclamation unit," Christian tiptoed to the rungs on the wall beneath the final hatch to the next deck, observing the mechanical equipment and piping around the room's skirting.

Collard came up behind the Captain as he began the short climb and couldn't help looking at his muscular butt. "I thought they went out of use decades ago."

"Our Engineer told us the ship's history spans more than a century, I guess this was one of the areas not to be given an upgrade," Christian poised with feet on different rungs, reaching up to the ceiling and sticking his arse out.

Collard found herself still staring at his butt and chastised herself. During her time at the Academy, the Ensign had not participated in the dating game with her peers, preferring to mix with those who enjoyed sport and the excitement of the Academy training rather than those into personal relationships. She had ridiculed other classmates for fancying the Academy tutors and senior officers, and here she was - a graduated Ensign - doing exactly the same. It made her a little mad at herself, and a little more confused.

Christian gripped the locking wheel on the hatch above and heaved hard; it wouldn't budge. Balancing precariously, he took the wheel in both hands and gave an almighty wrench, only to lose his grip and his footing and come crashing down, splashing onto the slimy deck. "Yeoow!"

"Captain! Are you all right?" Collard was quickly at his side.

Christian flinched from the wet and the smell that had penetrated his uniform and clung to his hair and heaved himself up.

"Dammit." As he stood, liquid trickled from his hair down his neck and under his clothes along his spine. The Ensign was fussing. "I'm fine, Ensign."

Collard turned to the ladder, smiling to herself privately, and ascended as high as she could. Christian watched as the young woman hunched over, putting her shoulder as close to the wheel as possible and gripping hard jerked it first tighter shut and then back the other way.

The hatch then opened with ease causing Christian to smirk at his own.

"I loosened it," he said, climbing onto the ladder and following his junior.

DECK 17, SS FANTASY

Kohl worked as fast as he could, fiddling with the communication panel in the corridor. Hedra kept a watch from a nearby corner.

"Are you done yet?" she whispered as loudly as she could.

"One more minute," the German's fingers were lacerated from the sharp wire and bits of metal he was using to sabotage the device.

Hedra turned back to peek around her corner and felt her stomach sink as she saw four T'Kani soldiers come round the bend some distance ahead, marching in her direction. She paused for a fraction of a second to take in their figure-hugging uniforms. Their hands and even their faces were covered, and the oddly shaped patches of colour on the uniforms were like a camouflage of sorts, but Hedra couldn't think of the location where such a camouflage would work save for a landscape of patchwork quilts.

As quickly and quietly as she could she sidled back out of sight, turned and ran on tiptoe to where the Starfleet engineer had his arms elbow-deep inside the corridor wall.

Kohl saw the desperate look on Hedra's face as she got close, and his hands fumbled as he made the last few adjustments. She passed him and turned the next corner at full speed, quickly popping her head back to mouth frantically, "Come on!"

He didn't have time to replace the cover as the Orion woman speedily returned, grabbed his arm and forcefully pulled him round the corner and into a sprint to the Jeffries tube they had emerged from earlier.

Clambering swiftly and silently inside, Kohl whispered: "I've rigged the unit to overload as soon as it detects sounds above a certain decibel. If it works, we may be able to do similar throughout the ship."

Hedra feared the level of noise the soldiers were making in their controlled march would not be loud enough so she poked her head out of the grill and shouted.

"Hey! We're here, you bastards!"

A shocked Kohl simultaneously pulled on Hedra and the two broke into a sprinting crawl to get away from the ensuing explosion of sound and wall.

As they passed it the noise of the T'Kani's running feet caused the commlink to kick in, and the unit emitted an increasingly loud wail, its powerful system creating a sound intense enough to cause Hedra and Kohl to grasp their ears in pain. Kohl hoped that unconsciousness would take the soldiers out before the commpanel circuits overloaded and exploded.

As the noise reached a crescendo and died without exploding, Hedra and Kohl paused, only to hear the pounding feet of more soldiers running around.

"Why didn't it explode?" Hedra asked.

"There must be additional safety features I hadn't accounted for," he said dejected and the two crawled quickly onward.

RUNABOUT HUDSON, 1103

Lirik perched behind Reb who sat in the pilot seat and a teary-eyed, sniffling Cadet Yip stood behind Slavich in the co-pilot seat as the runabout turned into yet another eddy.

"This isn't looking hopeful," the Commander commented negatively once more.

"At least we know there are limited paths the Fantasy could take," Lirik retorted. "The asteroid field is too dense in certain places for them to pass through safely."

Reb coughed and said: "Actually, that's what's making our search hard - even we cannot continue through at certain points."

"I've said it already, Yeoman, but we don't even know if the Fantasy made it this far," the burly man turned in his chair and addressed him defiantly. "Maybe that signal wasn't from them. They might be back in Vekarian space - or they may have been captured or destroyed by now."

Lirik turned to Reb. "You're not related, are you?" Reb smiled sarcastically.

"Maybe we're going about this the wrong way," Yip suggested. "Maybe we shouldn't be looking for evidence of the ship, but rather at the surrounding space where the ship may have been."

Slavich stared at her hard as Lirik swiftly slipped into the small science station beside Yip.

"I'll scan for any indication of wake disturbance or anomalous residue in the streams or on the asteroids themselves. Perhaps they got bumped by the Fantasy as she passed by." He turned to Yip and smiled. "Good thinking, Cadet."

Almost as soon as Lirik had entered the search parameters the computer trilled a response.

"You've found something?" Reb asked eagerly - he didn't relish the thought of spending any more time with his cohorts than he had to, least of all in the confines of the runabout.

Lirik smiled. "Actually no, I'm scanning residue of a small wormhole not far from here. It's spewed neutrinos into the surrounding area, and there is a wake pattern indicating a large object has passed through it in the last few hours. Interesting," Lirik cross checked his readings, "I think this wormhole may have been created from the exploded Vekarian wormhole. It may also be the reason the asteroid fields in this area have shifted."

Commander Slavich was studying the same data on his own screens. "If the T'Kani created it, then surely it's logical to deduce that they are the ones who passed through it."

Reb had an idea. "Lirik, can you give me an accurate base heading from here?"

Lirik followed his train of thought and entered the co-ordinates into the navigation system. Reb then overlaid their recorded flight path since the runabout had left the Fantasy days earlier and linked it to the base heading. As the system correlated the data the map zoomed out to show an overview of this part of Vekarian space, the estimated course of the Fantasy, and the runabout's flight path. Lirik then called up the coordinates of the Vekarian wormhole and drew a line between it and the location of this newer, smaller wormhole.

It was plain for all to see - the lined crossed paths with the Fantasy's predicted course, indicating that the Fantasy could have passed through a wormhole to reach this part of the Outer Zone.

"And look, the transmission we detected also coincides with this departure point near the wormhole. I'll bet my boots the ship that passed through it was the Fantasy," Lirik said. "This is great, bloody well done, guys."

The computer trilled another time. Slavich interrupted their joyful exchange brusquely. "Long range sensors are picking up eight vessels, approximately 127 minutes away on an intercept course with the location point of that transmission. They may not have identified us yet."

Lirik's face dropped. Reb gripped Lirik by the arm, his skin tingling as it contacted the protective shield around the Yeoman's body. It was a strange move, but one that made Lirik feel a little choked that his shipmate didn't recoil away.

"Don't tell me we're going to lead them away again?"

"Not if we can find the Fantasy quickly. Lay in a course for that heading and take us there as fast as you can," Lirik ordered.

Rebbik saw that if they passed through a thick part of the field they could cross through to the other nearby stream in a short time.

"Well Commander, seems like you'll get to see my piloting skills after all," he turned to Lirik and Yip. "Best take a seat."

As soon as they were seated Slavich activated the chair restraint forcefields around their lower torsos.

"Everyone hang on," Rebbik pulled the runabout hard to port and accelerated into the field, rollercoastering them hard, not seeing Lirik crack a smile of joy.

DECK 11, SS FANTASY 1110

"Okay, try it now," Christian closed the access hatch control panel as Collard pumped the manual lock arm. This time the hatch parted. There was a slight hiss as air escaped from their access shaft into the room above. The Ensign could not see any light coming through and continued to shunt the hatch until it was wide enough for her to poke her head and shoulders up. She took the torch from her Captain and shone it on the space around her.

The bronze metallic sheen of the overhead support struts bounced the torchlight down into the Secondary Bridge. It was clean, formal and deadly quiet, a musty smell hanging in the thin air. Putting the torch between her teeth, Collard clambered onto the carpeted deck and pulled herself to her feet using a nearby console. Shining the light further around the smaller bridge space, she saw plush cream chairs and ornate uplighters, echoing the luxurious décor found throughout the ship.

"Bridge appears secure, Captain. I think the air filters are faulty – I'll find the plant controls," Collard walked round the helm station and up some wide steps to the rear, passing by the Captain's Ready Room that looked over the whole bridge behind smoked glass and into the utility area at the rear of the small deck.

Christian pulled himself onto the Bridge and as a precaution, he released the hatch holding pins to re-seal the room behind them. As the Ensign disappeared from view, the light faded and died, leaving the Captain in darkness.

A distant mechanical noise heralded a warm pinkish light from the ornate, gold-effect up-lighters around the bridge. Christian noticed the deck was carpeted wall to wall, the coffee coloured material complementing stylised teak-effect work stations which fed into the bronze supports and ceiling struts that arced overhead, coming together in a chandelier-effect sensor cluster above the raised centre chair. All the consoles remained offline, including the main viewscreen.

A gush of icy cold air poured in from overhead vents, causing the Captain to shudder. In seconds, the bridge was almost at freezing point, spurring the Captain to assist the Ensign in her bumbling ignition protocols. On his way there, Christian noticed the Captain's ready room was almost entirely intact, and included personal artefacts. Colourful old-style datacards were strewn about the antique walnut desk alongside an open book and pen, as if the former commander of this bridge had only just stepped away for a moment. His instinct was to go in and investigate, but the chill was making his skin tighten and his fingers numb.

Walking past a small service bar and an even smaller unisex head, Christian found the French Canadian squatting behind a grilled partition amid storage crates. The life support controls for the deck were an independent system comprising old-style exposed mechanisms of seemingly limited capacity. It appeared the heating elements were not functioning properly.

"I don't think we can do anything about the cold, I'll shut down the blowers," Christian said, having fiddled with the controls himself with no effect. He noticed the main bridge command panel on the wall beside the life support controls and studied it carefully. As he had hoped, there was a sequence for isolation mode, should the bridge need to operate without detection or interference from the rest of the ship. He had come to realise the SS Fantasy had been organised to handle any situation, from external attack to internal terrorist activities, the command functions having backups for the backups and redundant and emergency systems apparently for all eventualities.

Switching the 'stealth' mode on, he powered up the command system and as distant tweets and tribbles sounded from the bridge, the heaters also fired. The Ensign beamed.

"We don't mind the cold back home, but right now I'm grateful for a bit of warmth," she said. The Captain smiled back and Collard seemed to truly see Christian for the first time. "Where are you from, Captain? Your accent sounds West Coast."

"Yes, Ensign," Christian mused, checking out the empty crates in the maintenance bay, "that would be West Coast of just about everywhere. I grew up moving from place to place, but I've lived almost my entire life in space, although I do have Terran roots."

"You were born on Earth, then?"

"In one sense, yes! I was actually born on stage aboard a sea-going passenger liner in the Pacific Ocean. Hah!" he guffawed in realisation. "The irony!"

Christian went back to the bridge area alive with flashing lights and computer murmurings.

"On stage…?" Collard followed a few paces behind. As she was about to quiz him further, the main viewscreen flickered into life, showing the 'ahead' view of the swirling asteroid field giving way here and there to star studded blackness of open space beyond. Christian located the tactical display on a science configured station. Slipping into the chair, he noted the lush softness of the padding. He made himself more comfortable, feeling the chair moulding to his body shape, and called up the navigational display.

The sharp intake of breath from Collard behind him jerked Christian's head up to see the main viewscreen presenting a starmap of their 'local' position with the SS Fantasy in the centre. Nearby, a small blip was weaving its way through the asteroid field toward them. Further off in the bottom left corner, eight blips and behind them two more sets of four blips were also heading straight for them.

"Well that's not good," the Captain pursed his lips, working out the station's command configuration. Finding the logic centre, he called up an interactive program and slowly fed the computer all the data it needed to analyse the detected craft. Unfortunately, the response was to blank all screens bar the phrase 'Diagnostic Sensors Offline'.

"Computer!" Christian bellowed, but the spoken words fell on no mechanical ears. "It must be screen interface only. There's no ship in our immediate vicinity, so the T'Kani were either beamed aboard by that approaching vessel somehow, though I don't see how, or more likely they were already aboard. Possibly behind those bulkheads that retracted, and like I say, maybe they were in cryo until we woke them."

"Can we take control of the ship from here?" the Ensign felt sure he would answer yes; most of the bridge stations were active, even though some systems were off-line.

Christian gave short shake of the head. "I'm afraid not. Although the main computer core has been activated, most of the internal command functions are missing, besides which we're in stealth mode here. If we attempt to make changes to the ship it may alert the T'Kani to our location. If we want to affect the rest of the ship, we'll have to do it manually."

Collard wandered around the bridge and found the station configured for the Purser. She hoped to find internal sensors and observe their current situation on board.

"Captain!" Collard exclaimed as she scrolled through the command section's decks. Before he could respond, she posted the image to the main viewscreen. Hundreds of overlapping dots were accumulated in the main shuttlebay; another group with varying intensities of luminance in what must have been the makeshift sick bay/beauty spa, and not counting the two of them on the Command Section Bridge, there were only two other dots that were closing in on them.

"It seems that most of our people are being held in the main shuttlebay, apart from the ones who I presume can't be moved due to injury," Christian said. "Can we see how many are T'Kani?"

Collard shook her head. "The data can't be interrogated, it's just a basic life-sign monitor - doesn't even recognise air movement, heat or weight distribution, let alone race or armament or how many there are of them."

Christian studied the read-outs hard, it was too difficult to discern numbers given the large group massed in the shuttlebay. "Strange. Aside from the two main groups in the Shuttle Bay and the Beauty Spa, it seems those two coming our way are the only other T'Kani on board. And they're headed straight for us. But why is there no one on the Bridge? Or in Engineering?"

"Maybe there aren't many of them," Collard suggested. "Maybe they're securing everyone first, and everyone is accounted for except us. And those two approaching have come to round us up too. They're about thirty metres away, by the way, but I can't tell their exact route from these side elevation displays."

Christian shook his head.

"If they're coming for us, we must have been detected. But how is that possible? We're on stealth mode? Maybe they have accessed a similar life form readout display and they saw us before I activated it? Well, it's a moot point. I've secured the hatch in the floor, see if you can seal off the other access points. I have a hunch. I'm going to try and take a closer look at that approaching ship," Christian stabbed frantically at the lcars panels around the science station, hoping to realign the deflector system.

Collard felt helpless. She had stupidly left her phaser with the main group, and aside from her small torch cutter she had no weapon. As she moved off to find all the entry points she had the sinking feeling that perhaps their freedom would be short lived.

RUNABOUT HUDSON, 1120

"Shouldn't we hail them?" Cadet Lee finally said after toying with the question in her head for several minutes.

Slavich left his co-pilot seat and walked to the phaser cupboard. "Not if we want to remain undetected. The asteroids in this stream are irradiated, hopefully they should provide sufficient cover from their sensors, but communications could be detected."

"How long till we reach the Fantasy?" Lirik asked, standing beside the airlock with his arms folded - he felt surprisingly tense, perhaps at the back of his mind wondering what to expect from Captain Christian following his insubordination.

"About five minutes," Rebbik snapped, intent upon the viewports with the occasional glance at the tactical monitor, both hands splayed across the flight controls.

"And the other ships?" Lirik pressed.

"YOU look, dammit!" Rebbik cracked, causing the Englishman to cast his eyes skyward and take Slavich's seat.

"They've made good time," Lirik said pushing at the coloured bars on the starboard workstation, "they're about ninety minutes away. But I should be able to get a visual of the Fantasy any moment now."

Lirik had served in a whole host of different roles during his Starfleet career. Before joining the Diplomatic Corps he had been sent on an intensive fast-track command course and assigned officer-level operative duties more than a few times on specialist field missions, learning via holo-intelligence 'crammer' courses and monitored simulations all the essentials of most ship-board duties. Field experience and trial and error had provided the rest of his education but he nevertheless enhanced his abilities when enjoying holodeck time either swatting Starfleet situation procedures, engaging with new technologies and practices, or playing a variety of roles in 'normal' Starfleet field exercise and war games programs.

Not many people knew of this, however, as so few people ever got too close to Lirik. The Yeoman's belief was that it kept him sharp, though in reality the game-playing was yet another way of getting out of himself (away from others) and achieving a false though improved sense of self worth. Outwardly, Lirik always stated that if he excelled in as many different areas as he could, he would attain a position of authority among his peers and thus give him a kind of disassociated acceptance. He was both blessed and cursed by an insatiable curiosity and a good imagination that kept him active and yet aloof.

Minutes later, after many scans through varying spectra and having successfully filtered out the local radiation, Lirik identified a generous displacement wave of space matter following a slow moving eddy within the enormous asteroid field. A few seconds later, a blob of blocked out stars on the advance monitor gave the first visual sign of the Fantasy.

"There she is," Slavich said in a soft whisper. "She's… she's… titanic."

"Oh God, I hope not!" Reb said.

Lirik turned to see the Commander had equipped himself with a tricorder and phaser. Knowing that he had disabled the dematerialising function of all onboard phasers (perhaps an over-zealous precaution on his part) Lirik said:

"There's no need to arm yourself, Commander. You're among friends now."

The Kosovan handed another phaser to his Cadet. "Come now, Mister Lirik, surely you haven't forgotten that Starfleet regulations state that potentially hostile situations require the bearing of arms? You don't know what's happened on board her since you've been away."

Lirik swallowed. It was true. But considering the ship appeared to be heading along the same trajectory and no other ship was near her, he had automatically assumed the ship was much as he and Reb had left it.

SECONDARY BRIDGE, SS FANTASY 1125

Collard finally managed to call up the detailed deck plans surrounding the Command Section's secondary bridge on the life signs monitor board of the Purser's station. In the process she had learned that the monitoring software comprised a network of logic units dispersed around the ship that automatically and independently hooked into most ship's systems to monitor biological life signs. Only communications seemed to have an operative interface with the software, the Ensign assumed because Hedra had managed to get a temporary internal comm network up and running. All the other systems were off line, damaged or removed.

"Captain, I've identified the crawlway the two approaching T'Kani are using," Collard said.

Christian didn't respond and the Ensign glanced up at him; he was deep in thought.

"Captain?"

Without reacting, he crossed to her station and leant over, studying the displays. Warmed by the life support system, the Captain had removed his jacket and had his sweat-stained red undershirt unzipped to the chest. Turning her head briefly, Collard glimpsed her commanding officer's softly haired naked chest beneath the shirt.

"I can't access any systems that will prevent or even delay their arrival," she said swooning a little from the heady mix of butterflies, nerves and adrenalin.

"We don't have long," Christian said, straightening. "There's another access shaft running down the sheering plane forward of the bridge," he said nodding to the narrow corridor that passed behind the main viewscreen, "we can make our escape that way."

"And then what?" Collard said, watching the Captain make his way forward, scooping up his jacket en route.

"We find another means of taking the ship," he said. He observed the Ensign hadn't moved from her chair. "What's wrong?"

Collard was shaking, her eyes darting from the rear of the bridge where the T'Kani would appear at any moment and Christian.

"Sir, shouldn't we try and take out them out? They may have weapons or devices that could help us?"

"We're unarmed, Ensign," Christian said flatly, "if they take us, the rest of the crew don't have a chance."

Collard felt conflicted. It wasn't part of a Security officer's training to retreat for the sake of retreat, yet his justification was sound. His safety was also, she felt, her responsibility, and retreat was the better option in that regard, yet missing an opportunity like this went against her better judgement. The Ensign had a brief flashback of her Academy training. Her class had been told there would be times when orders opposed training and instincts.

Lingering on this handsome man's strong features she felt a moment of calm; here was an older, more experienced officer who she felt she could trust. Her opposing feelings melted away.

Nodding, she quickly followed behind her Captain.

RUNABOUT HUDSON, 1128

"The shuttlebay doors aren't open," Lirik said peering into the distance.

"They haven't seen us," Reb said, able to speak calmly now that they were through the worst of the asteroid field and coming up on the Fantasy fast.

Slavich stood next to Cadet Yip, who was trying to get a sensor lock on the ship to no avail.

"Should we hail them now?" she asked, frustrated.

"Negative, Cadet," Slavich warned. "Not until we have established that it's safe to do so."

"Bring us on a parallel course," Lirik instructed, "doesn't matter which side, then bring her close to the upper turret of the command section. We should be able to make ourselves known to anyone who's looking out through the windows. There should at least be people in the Observation Lounge."

Reb accelerated and the runabout was soon within metres of the ship. The Hudson rocked lightly in the Fantasy's wake.

"See there, damage to one of the impulse exhausts," Yip pointed to the relevant area.

"It happened just before we were separated," Lirik confirmed.

As the runabout ascended to the ship's summit, they observed that all the windows were entirely blacked out by the coating, although many had their protective shutters in place – also covered in the same substance. Despite this, Lirik guessed from the arrangement of windows that most were quarters, he guessed for crew, perhaps senior crew. Then he wondered if he'd overheard Kohl saying exactly that.

Slavich exchanged a look with Lirik, having given up on the sensors, and assisted in the visual scan.

"I'm thinking we're not going to see a thing."

"Let's hope they can see us," Lirik said. "Mister Yip, go to the rear and keep an eye out for anything unusual."

"Aye, sir," she said and moved off to the back of the runabout. Slowly Reb edged the Hudson even closer to the huge black hulk of the vessel, the passenger section sweeping off into the distance before them.

Their much smaller ship was almost parallel with the bridge deck, and the ship inched forward until the observation lounge was in sight.

"There!" Slavich pointed. Lirik and Reb could see nothing. "I could have sworn I saw a light, just a small flashing light momentarily." Lirik didn't discount the possibility, but given the lack of hail, he assumed that either no one had yet spotted them, or there was a problem.

"The bridge has skylights, can you take us over them?" Lirik asked. "We may have a better chance being seen there."

Reb's answer was to drop the runabout back by easing off the speed and letting the Fantasy pass beside them. At the rear, he accelerated the runabout and guided the vessel up and over the aft-most elevated section and then forward to just above the apex of the Fantasy's high turret on the command section.

"Reb, take us forward, but slowly, all the way to the ship's prow," Lirik turned to the Commander. "We'll check things out through the rear."

Lirik and Slavich strode briskly into the rear of the Hudson. Clambering through the retrieved equipment and supplies, the two men plus Yip pressed their faces as close to the cool glass of the rear viewports as possible, all holding breath to avoid steaming up the plexiglass. They all peered down into the skylights of the ship's main bridge but these were equally blackened.

"Is there no way we can see in?" Yip asked.

"I'm afraid not, Cadet," Lirik said, then added. "You two stay here, let us know if you see anything."

Yip shot a glance at Slavich, then at Lirik. Rather than say anything, she turned back to stare out through the glass, and the Yeoman returned to the Bridge.

SECONDARY BRIDGE, SS FANTASY 1132

It hadn't occurred to the Captain or to Ensign Collard that their way down through the forward access shaft might be blocked. The plate behind the hatch had been soldered shut, and Collard was using a discarded rag to hold her overheating cutter pen to slowly slice through the seal. Christian stood watch from the rear corridor, peering around every now and again to check for any T'Kani arrivals. As he turned back to check on the Ensign's progress, he noticed movement through the skylight slits above.

"What the hell…?" Christian couldn't believe it, there was another ship. Collard stopped her own work and stood on tiptoe to see through the skylight above her.

"It looks like the Hudson!" Collard she said.

Christian had an eerie feeling and ran back onto the bridge to the science station. Sure enough, the blip that had been closing in had reached them. He flipped the viewscreen to forward view and saw the small Starfleet vessel coasting slowly above the entire length of the Fantasy, checking her out. He could barely make out two figures in the dimly lit rear section peering down. Until now he had been ready to read both men the riot act, but currently Christian couldn't have been more pleased for Lirik and Reb's return.

He was about to go and attempt to transmit a message, then heard the access hatch to the rear of the bridge being shunted open.

Christian ran back on tiptoe to join the Ensign who had cut through two thirds of the seal. Taking her arm, he pulled her roughly to one side and raised his right leg. Aiming with all his might he kicked the panel with the flat of his boot. The metal nudged an inch and Collard moved in tight to join him. Together, with increasingly rapid kicks it eventually snapped, falling into the shaft below, clattering against the walls some way down.

At the same moment Christian followed Collard into the shaft below, Lieutenant Commander Kohl and Hedra finally got the hatch open and came through the shaft to the rear of the Secondary bridge.

"You were right, there is power here," Hedra smiled, thankful that the deck appeared warm and empty.

Kohl steadied himself on her firm arms as he pulled himself up, repositioning his glasses and ran his big dirty hands through the thick blonde hair of his head. Holding her back, he heroically led the way forward as Hedra reclosed the shaft hatch behind them.

"The Secondary Bridge is running on stealth mode," Kohl whispered, entering in the small control room. "It must have been where the T'Kani were hiding."

Hedra's eyes skipped around, trying to see if there were any T'Kani remaining, and as she moved forward she saw the image on the main viewscreen ahead of her.

"Oh my God, look!" she said. Kohl was pleasantly surprised to see it was the familiar shape of the diplomatic runabout Hudson in the distance, coasting above the Passenger Section heading for the prow.

Trotting down into the main bridge, the German found the Operations station. Trying to click on the hail, the system returned an on-screen fault message.

"They might not know of our predicament, we need to hail them. Go into the power room, flick the power out of stealth mode and onto main system," he asked of Hedra who skipped away, keen to get assistance.

The Orion woman rapidly studied the power grid configuration, then without further thought she flicked the two switches and selected the appropriate mode. Instantly, an 'fszssshp!' sound could be heard from the main bridge area, similar to the sound she'd heard in the Computer Control Room.

"No!" she heard Kohl cry, and peered around the wall to see five T'Kani soldiers, clad head to foot, surrounding the Lieutenant Commander. She wondered how the hell they could have appeared that suddenly. Before she could react, one of the soldiers belted Kohl across the jaw with the back of her hand. Hedra watched as the Starfleet officer fell unmoving to the deck and she wondered what her next move should be.

It took her a couple more seconds before the truth dawned on her. She swiftly turned back to the power grid and reached up, only to have the wind knocked out of her from behind. She slammed into the wall, the power console digging into her head as she fell. Weak and bleeding, she turned just in time to see the T'Kani soldier raise a fist before everything went black.

EP 4 ACT 4

RUNABOUT HUDSON

As their visual scan of the apparently deserted SS Fantasy continued, Lirik realised he was being distracted by the detail on the surface of the passenger section. Having coasted above the top surface, the runabout passed to just ahead of it where Reb slowly dropped the Hudson down in front of the massive ship.

During the slow drop, Lirik rejoined the quiet couple in the Hudson's aft section to watch the surface rise past them as they descended in front of the prow. Starting from the relatively sharp ended prow on the top-most Passenger Section deck, as they descended this line softened into a more flattened out surface. At this foremost area of the ship the windows had all been sealed with emergency shutters, and it appeared a few decks had even had their windows removed completely and covered with repair plating, though as with every other surface these too had the same layer of coating.

Nearing the halfway point, a large central navigation dish loomed into view, followed by two smaller circular dishes flanking each side, a bit lower down.

Lirik had no idea what they were, though Slavich guessed they might be part of a different kind of deflector system than they were used to seeing. Below these, they saw a number of phaser turrets and two torpedo launch tubes; the technology involved was very old (turrets had been replaced by phaser arrays many decades ago) and they guessed were part of a more recent refit.

"Ordnance on a Passenger Liner?" Slavich commented. "Seems a little paranoid."

"Actually, defense systems were common on leisure cruisers back in the day," Yip corrected. "I'm sure you must both remember."

The two men exchanged a glance. The Yeoman was amused by the remark, but the Commander's hard face indicated he felt the opposite, although he said nothing about it.

Just like everything else on the surface of the ship, even these installations had been coated with the same black glistening substance. Slightly lower, the decks were set back, slung underneath the forward-most section. Here, they observed a series of central windows on a couple of decks that were flanked by two large shuttle bay doors, one port, one starboard, both angled outward, and both firmly sealed with bay doors.

Reb guided the Hudson to a level beneath the lowest point of the Fantasy and barely dropped back on the speed so that the huge ship passed slowly overhead. Lirik pointed out to the Commander the numerous entrances on the port and starboard underside and sides where private vessels were stored for the more affluent passengers, or so he'd heard Kohl explain. A few minutes later, the Hudson was back on the tail of the Fantasy, vibrating in the other vessel's wake.

"Should I take her round the sides?" Reb asked as the two men re-entered the cockpit.

"Those T'Kani ships will be on us in just over an hour," Slavich said, toying with the phaser clipped to his belt. "We don't have the time. We need to get aboard now."

Slavich was at the transporter controls. "I can't get a lock on the interior of vessel, there's no chance of us beaming in from here safely."

Lirik moved to the sensors and scanned the area around the main shuttle bay doors, zooming in as close as he could. As he guessed, there were both EVA airlocks and manual override panels on either side of the main bay doors.

"I think we have no choice but to break communications silence," Lirik said. "Agreed?"

Both men nodded.

"Commander, transmit known universal key codes at the rear of the ship, it should open the doors for us."

Slavich did so, but nothing happened. "The system must be off line."

Lirik flicked at the comm controls in front of him. "Fantasy, please come in. This is the Hudson."

"No response," Reb stated the obvious.

"Well one of us will have to go out there and release the bay doors manually," Lirik said.

Reb's jaw dropped. "They are travelling at over 500kph!"

Lirik smiled. "That's a crawl in space terms." He knew what Reb meant, but he wanted to create an air of confidence.

Slavich glared in contempt. "Those T'Kani ships are on an intercept course, have we got time for that?"

"What do you suggest, shooting the doors open?" Lirik asked.

"There may already be T'Kani aboard," Reb added wisely. "That may explain why we haven't heard from anyone."

"I don't like the sound of an EVA either, but I don't see we have a choice." Lirik couldn't think of a viable alternative solution other than beaming into the shuttle bay based purely on instinct – and that could be potentially fatal.

Cadet Yip coughed as she entered from the rear. "We might not have to go completely outside."

They all turned to see the Cadet holding a number of telescopic communication antennae that had been retrieved from the Papillon. It was clear enough for them all to realise that, tied together, they could form an extension long enough to reach the manual override panel if the runabout got close enough.

UNKNOWN DECK, SS FANTASY

The maintenance shaft Collard and Christian had used to escape was blocked five decks down. Reluctantly they had gone back up two deck levels and exited through a horizontal crawlway. Collard took point this time, though reaching a small intersection atrium she slumped down and stretched her legs.

"Yes, take a minute, Ensign," Captain Christian said. "I don't believe we've been followed or detected." His head rocked back so he leaned against the wall and his closed his eyes. "I don't know about you, I could sleep forever. Argh!" A muscle twanged above his shoulder blade and he fought to try and reach it to relieve the sharp twitching pain that remained.

Collard was sitting opposite him, legs crossed confidently, and she was slowly massaging her own face, neck and shoulders.

"Here," the Ensign said. "My mother was a physiotherapist and taught me a few techniques."

Christian didn't flinch as the young woman scooched him forward, slipped snugly behind him and grasped his shoulders firmly.

"Augh! Jeez!" he couldn't help but verbalise the intense pain/pleasure feel of the hard hands kneading at his tense muscles. "That's … very good, Ensign. Thank you."

For minutes, neither spoke, the light from the torch pen casting strange undulating shadows on the walls as the security officer's movements took away much of the tension from her superior's body. After his shoulders Collard moved to his neck, and finally ran her fingertips hard across his scalp, roughing his hair up and causing Christian to grin.

"Thank you," he said as she sat back across from him. "I've been thinking, Ensign. If they could have, Yeoman Lirik and Rebbik would have brought the runabout aboard immediately."

"Unless they knew there were T'Kani on board," Collard said.

Christian shook his head. "I doubt they could have scanned through the Fantasy's coated hull, but I agree they must have worked out by now that something is up."

"They may find another way in?" she guessed.

"Possibly, but they would try main shuttle bay first."

"Sir, if we're going to re-take the ship, we'll need weapons. If we could find some – or get a message to Mister Lirik, he might be able to help us. I'm sure the runabout has phasers on board, won't they?"

"They can't help us unless they can get aboard first. No, I think we're going to have to rely on our own people on board to help us for the time being." Christian paused for a few seconds, going through the possibilities. "We can count out the main group held in the shuttle bay. For one, it's a longer crawl for us, and for two, they're sure to be more heavily guarded."

Collard thought hard for a moment. "Wouldn't the others be too injured to help?"

"Perhaps not all of them, no," Christian mused. "I can't see Lieutenant O'Hara leaving the injured alone with the T'Kani, can you?"

"Then we go to the former beauty spa," Collard said, moving on to all fours to head out.

"Maybe not we, Ensign," Christian said. Collard frowned. "Just me. You should continue to the Main Shuttle Bay and reconnoiter. If I fail, then at least you might have a chance to either get the runabout aboard or free some of the crew, but don't do anything rash. They don't appear to have killed anyone as far as we know, and I don't want to provoke them to if we can avoid it."

She smiled and shook her head. "It would be a lot simpler if we had a fully operational ship. We could simply seal off the relevant sections and flood them with sleeping gas, sort the rest out afterwards. Mind you not that we know if it affects T'Kani physiology or not, of course. Those suits they wear might well incorporate breathing apparatus."

"Indeed they might," Christian said, smiling at the Ensign's enthusiasm, "and we can hopefully find that out if that's the case as soon as we've re-taken the ship. Okay, get going."

Collard was already at the hatch, about to make a fast crawl away. "Good luck, Sir."

"You too, er, what's your first name, Ensign?" he asked politely.

The French Canadian flushed with embarrassment. "Estelle," she said.

"All my hopes, Estelle."

The Ensign was swiftly gone. Being much smaller, and having shorter limbs, Collard was better equipped physically for moving through maintenance crawlways. Christian found the going slow, cumbersome, and painful, having nearly worn through his tattered pants.

As he rested above a ventilation grille, Christian heard footsteps approaching and kept completely motionless. Staring down through the triple layer mesh, he watched as a T'Kani patrol passed along the corridor beneath him. Amid their ranks were the two bloodied and frightened faces of Lieutenant Commander Kohl and Hedra. The young woman was unsteady and being supported by the engineer. He could see a bloody nasty wound on her head as she passed by.

RUNABOUT HUDSON

As luck had it, the hitherto unused space suits in the runabout's emergency locker were too small for Slavich and Lirik and too big for Cadet Yip. Although designed to be worn by anyone, the three could have managed, but not comfortably, and the two officers agreed the person to do the job would need maximum flexibility and maneuverability.

Reb, assuming he had been deemed the most expendable, was making loud protests while being fitted, not least of which was a lack of confidence in the piloting skills of the two Starfleets.

Once booted and suited, Lirik went over the final do's and don'ts for a third time before Reb donned the helmet. Lirik tethered the thin but strong cable between the runabout's central corridor railing and the side of Reb's suit, sealed off the aft section then walked past Reb into the cockpit area. Standing before Reb, he thrust a thumb up for good luck then closed off the forward section. As the doors closed, Reb raised his middle finger in response and stood alone in the narrow inner corridor space holding onto the long rods of metal in his big-gloved hands. Red lights started to flash in all four corners of the corridor's ceiling before he felt the imperceptible drain of atmosphere around him.

Moments later several rungs emerged from the flush housings on the left wall, and looking up, Reb saw three circular seals swoop smoothly back into their housings. As the final one retracted, he saw the stars above him, barely moving. With the SIF having been reduced to its lowest possible setting, the runabout was shaking a little more than normal. The gravity boots he wore gripped the decking firmly, however Reb knew that when he commenced the climb to the top, his grip would be a lot less firm.

Licking his lips, Reb extended each telescopic antennae, lashing each one to the next with self-sealing meshwrap tape slung from his belt. Reb almost expected there to be a pull on the antennae as it poked out of the runabout, but of course, in the vacuum of space there was only the occasional wobble as the vessel itself moved around him. Soon the precariously long rod extended ten metres above him and outside of the runabout, and at that moment Reb wondered how he was going to climb with one hand.

Instead, he used the vacuum to his advantage and gripped the antennae under his armpit as he slowly and shakily climbed the rungs.

"You're doing very well, Reb," Lirik's voice was sudden and unexpected in his helmet, loud as if in his own mind and Reb teetered on the rungs, almost losing his footing.

"For the-! Could you just shut up a minute?!" Reb responded. "You scared me half to death."

As with many things in life, there is a first time for everything. Until this moment, despite having lived most of his waking time in space, Reb had never stuck his head out of a vessel moving quite this fast. As a boy, he had assisted his father in EVAs outside their home, but then the trading vessel on which he was raised was always stationary or in stationary orbit. Although deeply dangerous, it was also an amazing experience, especially as he found himself almost entirely surrounded by stars, and he couldn't help a quick scan around with his eyes.

The back of the Fantasy was mammoth up this close. Reb was pleasantly surprised to see that Slavich had piloted the runabout to within metres of the vessel.

"Can you take me in any closer?" Reb asked, smiling at his own joke, knowing it wasn't safe, let alone possible.

"Negative, this is the safest minimum distance," Slavich's hard accent cut through Reb.

Reb braced himself as best he could, then adjusted his helmet setting so that part of his visor was giving him a telescopic image.

Much like with his old Pod's grabber arm deep under the surface of Helub, Reb swung the antennae extension down toward the Fantasy's hull.

"Shit!" Reb cried as the antennae hit the metal surface hard, way shy of the manual override panel and putting a strain on the mesh connectors. He almost lost his grip of the long quirky pole entirely. A sudden image of his body floating off into space to be picked up (or picked off) by the T'Kani vessels some minutes behind flashed through his head, though he hoped the thin tether would rather leave him dangling off the back of the runabout.

"It's okay, just shorten the pole," Lirik spoke calmly in his ear.

"Yes, thank you," Reb muttered, "I can work it out for myself."

"You've got plenty of time," Lirik said even more softly.

Reb ignored his shady provocation. Carefully, he shortened the extension's length and stabbed at the panel another three times. He realised it was the helmet's telescopic view that was causing the problem with his hand eye coordination, and so switched back to normal view and found that his accuracy improved.

A short time later he finally managed to get the extension to the right length. However, landing the one centimetre tip on a two-centimetre square was not an easy ask. Again and again he stabbed at the hull, to no avail.

Inside the cockpit, Yip was tensed up, willing Reb to make contact. Slavich consistently made tutting and heavy sighing noises. Only Lirik seemed calm, though he'd stopped his goading, instead keeping one eye on the chronometer.

MAIN SHUTTLEBAY, SS FANTASY

In the stale air of the main shuttle bay Murat turned his head slightly toward Commodore Jackson. Everyone captive had been forced to either sit on their hands or with their hands on their heads or behind their backs, spaced evenly apart in clear lines, although the children were more huddled in places.

They covered the entire shuttle bay deck. T'Kani soldiers stood in silent watch around the perimeter, each holding a rifle-sized weapon that they had lowered at the survivors. Spaced evenly, Jackson had been able to accurately count 555 people sitting on the deck, though during the general melee when being forced to the floor word had reached her that the worst injured were being held in the makeshift sick bay, including the three Klingons who had tried their best to fight back at close quarters, but found themselves overwhelmed, beaten badly and then fired upon. The Captain, Collard, Hedra and Kohl were no-where to be seen. Narli had been separated from the main group of prisoners, as had all the Helan.

Murat lightly coughed, an indiscernible noise, barely audible to Jackson. She didn't turn right away to avoid attracting any attention - they were permitted to move their heads, scratch or adjust their legs or sitting postures, but they were not allowed to stand or speak.

Some children were sobbing, though the youngest and the babies had been eventually allowed to sit with their guardians after a lot of protest that had at first been met with an amount of violence. It also hadn't stopped a few children from being clipped across the head or hit in the face with the butt of a soldier's weapon when they made too much noise, though barely enough to injure them. Jackson and several others had aggressively protested at this, but it had only resulted in even more injuries; the Commodore herself had a split lip and a partially swollen eye socket. Everyone finally realised the best thing to do was to stay quiet and keep still as best they could and try and calm the traumatised children. Jackson continued to boil with anger inside and wanted to get these T'Kani more than anything she had felt before.

A few heartbeats after Murat's cough she slowly inclined her head and pretended to look to the side of the shuttle bay.

"They can hear noises at the back," Murat informed her in a whisper, trying not to move his lips. Thankfully the T'Kani hadn't removed their commbadges and the tiny device was recreating the whispered Romulan into an equally whispered English. "It sounds like tapping on the bay doors."

Jackson turned away and dipped her head in acknowledgement seconds later, pleased the 'Chinese Whispers' network of the captives had armed her with more information. She wondered if the knocking had been made by the Captain and hoped he had a rescue plan.

Hours ago, the T'Kani soldiers had materialised all around them and throughout much of the ship without warning, instantly forcing everyone at gunpoint to the shuttle bay. Some survivors had been physically assaulted (like the Klingons, who had resisted the most), and she heard a few others had also been shot at, but as far as she knew no one had actually been killed.

No single T'Kani seemed to be in charge, and their strange, multicoloured all in one suits gave no indication of rank or position. Added to which, none of them had spoken - their gestures and use of weapons had been all the communication tools they needed. She thought perhaps they were telepaths - particularly as neither she nor anyone else had been interrogated in any way.

As Jackson wondered what she could do to help the Captain or whoever it was outside the ship, she was surprised to see the doors leading to the adjacent standby shuttle area retract. Nearly all the prisoners on the main shuttle bay floor turned their heads as one to see what was going on.

On the other side of the doors the Helan were all seated similarly on the floor, though under a much heavier guard. Why they should have been separated from the others wasn't clear to the Commodore, but as she scanned across the room her eyes fell on Ambassador Narli, and he appeared to have been badly beaten.

Alarmed by the abhorrent treatment of the older statesman, instinctively Jackson quickly if clumsily got to her feet to protest, causing all the T'Kani around the perimeter of the passengers to raise their weapons and step into an attacking stance, her compatriots trying to get her to sit and obey.

Before anything else could happen, a terrific "shunting" sound rang out from behind her and turning around she saw the electric blue of the passive forcefield kick in around the Main Shuttlebay doors. Slowly the huge bulkhead retracted into its housing above and Jackson was excited to see the off-white hull of the runabout Hudson.

As the small vessel came into view, she saw a space-suited figure wave eagerly from the top of the ship, though she couldn't identify them. The raised hand then hesitated as it saw the scene, and then the whole body dropped from sight as many red flashes of weapons fire lashed out from every T'Kani soldier toward the ship. As Jackson sprawled across the deck with the rest of the screaming civilians, she saw that their blasts wouldn't penetrate the bay's shields, but realised the energy displacement could possibly cause it to deactivate and the shuttle bay to decompress.

"NO! Hold your fire!" she shouted, knocking heads violently with a terrified looking Professor Karim as people scrambled for cover.

"Commodore!" the Professor could hardly control her emotions anymore. "There is something you should know! It is about the T'Kani soldiers, they are all -" Her words could not be completed as she was kicked in the head by a desperate Tellerite, his hoof knocking her instantly unconscious as he tried to move out of harm's way.

Jackson was then roughly hauled to one side, rolled onto her back, and she saw the doors to the adjacent standby bay closing, the guards around the Helan not moving from their vigil. The Hudson remained metres behind the ship, though with failing vision she couldn't see the argument taking place between two of its occupants on the other side of the runabout's viewports. Plainly deciding the situation was too dangerous, the runabout veered slowly away.

The same hand that had hauled Jackson to one side then grabbed her yet again, and wrenched her arm, heading for the side of the shuttle bay as the T'Kani were distracted by the disappearing vessel. She realised it was Murat, and he was to leading her out of the shuttlebay.

"No!" the Commodore pulled herself violently free. "I won't leave them!" She turned back to see most of the prisoners had either sprawled flat on their faces, or scurried to the sides of the bay out of the line of fire. The T'Kani had moved into three main groups and were trying to regain order, but people weren't moving fast and they brandished their weapons harder.

Murat was aiming for an unguarded flank. Preoccupied as the T'Kani were, she assumed he had seen an opportunity for escape and hoped to take her with him.

"Come on! While we have time!" Murat urged, but the soldiers were starting to use their weapons, thankfully on stun, to regain control of the prisoners. This caused a partial resurgence in panic and even more firing, and Jackson was suddenly hit by a stun blast and crumpled to the floor. Murat himself dived toward the door to the corridor, but even as he flew through the air he saw a T'Kani soldier advancing on him.

Murat was jerked to his feet by the costumed bulk, facing the massive T'Kani head on, the outline of its mouth and chin visible beneath the purple/green/pink/yellow/blue/gold/black mask. He couldn't even get a sense of smell from the thing. As it raised its rifle butt to hit him, he turned his cheek and braced himself for the impact. The blow never came.

Glancing back, he saw the freshly materialised Yeoman Lirik behind the T'Kani with his hand firmly gripping the attacker's arm aloft. The Diplomat's free hand came crashing down in a chop across the backside of the neck with the handle of his own phaser and the T'Kani fell to its knees.

Gripping the alien's weapon hard, Lirik wrenched it free and smashed it across the T'Kani's skull. As he did, the T'Kani dematerialised. Murat leapt out into the corridor, closely followed by the Yeoman as weapons blasts followed them.

The corridor was empty. They could hear the firing from within the bay, but no one else was following them.

"This way," Lirik pointed and the two men raced off down the corridor heading for the same Jeffries tube that Lirik and Christian had used to ascend to the Bridge nearly a week ago after they first came aboard. In spite of the adrenalin the Yeoman managed to have a sinking feeling as he began the long climb up.

UNKNOWN DECK, SS FANTASY

Christian slumped, sweating profusely in the Jeffries tube as he lost his bearings once more. The first two times he had been forced to enter a corridor area to read the deck plans, but he seemed closer to a lot more T'Kani soldiers and felt he couldn't risk it. Hunched over as he was, he could feel blood seeping through his trousers at the knees. Thin strands of matted hair, wet and dripping fell in front of his eyes from perspiration.

As he caught his breath, he heard a slight chinking sound from nearby and smelled the destination before he saw it. Carefully he followed the occasionally chinking noise to its origin. Peering down through the vent into the atrium below, he could see the plant crossing it's ceiling that suspended chains into what O'Hara had turned into the makeshift morgue. He'd made it.

Quick as he was able, Christian climbed onto the plant and down the chains and stood amid the gloom of the former workshops. Making his way quickly forward, he heard few sounds coming from the sick bay area. Carefully, he proceeded to the area where O'Hara had been treating her worst cases and hiding behind a few crates he saw her assistants there going about their business, almost as if nothing was wrong.

As he stepped out of the shadows, a sixth sense told him danger before he felt the weight of another person slam into his thighs from behind and tackle him to the floor. He was barely able to turn and block the arm as it came crashing down into the back of his head, and almost didn't manage it when he saw not a T'Kani soldier, rather O'Hara herself, brandishing a metal pipe with great verve.

"Christian?!" she said, shocked.

The Captain fought for air. "Do you mind?"

She hesitated, then climbed up from her straddling position, calling to the others. "It's okay, it's Captain Christian."

Christian raised a finger to his lips, but the redhead was saying no, pulling him to his feet. "There are no T'Kani in here. They won't come beyond those doors, for some reason."

"How many of you are there?" Christian approached the intensive care beds, sadly seeing another of the patient's faces had been covered.

"They allowed us few to remain to treat the people they wounded when they took control, and care for these worst cases and those too frail or weak to be with the others, but they took everyone else," she said, stepping in to assist the Jetralex eunuch who was busying herself changing dressings on a particularly nasty wound.

"More like that, Wheezy," she said in a kind tone. "Captain, where's the cavalry? Or are you acting alone?"

Christian gritted his teeth. "Actually I'm not sure. The good news is Lirik has returned with the runabout. The bad news is, I don't think they can get aboard. Ensign Collard is hoping to change that. She's on her way to the main shuttle bay," he said, noticing the New Parisian man was staring at his bloody legs.

"That's where everyone else was taken," O'Hara said, nodding.

"Correct. As far as I can tell, Collard and I were the only ones who evaded them. I was sort of hoping some of you would help me to re-take the ship, but you've obviously got your hands- " Christian was cut off by the sound of movement from entrance to the Beauty Spa's former foyer. He ducked down, even though the soldiers couldn't see them.

O'Hara peeped through the plastic curtains to see two T'Kani dumping Hedra's wounded frame through the main doors, then turn their backs to keep guard outside. O'Hara and Wheezy rushed to help the moaning Hedra to the back of the spa.

"I don't get it, why won't they ever come in here?" the strange character called Wheezy said as she deftly lifted Hedra onto a spare table and handed a tricorder to the Lieutenant.

"Perhaps they're scared of blood," O'Hara said.

"That's funny, our Ensign thinks they're afraid of the dark," Christian snorted. He then jumped as Hedra's hand grabbed his arm.

"No…" she said quietly.

"Shh, there. You've got a bad head wound," O'Hara said.

"No, it's the T'Kani, they…" Hedra tried to speak. Christian moved closer, finding himself blocked by O'Hara. He couldn't believe it. Here, even in the direst of straits, the Lieutenant was giving him yet another stand-off. He swiftly changed to her other side and lowered his face to Hedra's.

"Miss Hedra? What were you saying?" he saw her eyes flutter open, her mouth breaking in to a smile.

"Captain…" she said, dreamily, "how nice…"

"Captain!" O'Hara warned.

Christian gripped the Orion's shoulders. "Come on, there's no time for that. What were you telling us?"

"Captain Christian!" O'Hara barked.

Hedra's face straightened, then laughed ironically. "Holograms… they're all holograms," she said.

Christian was stunned. He straightened, and didn't feel O'Hara heaving him to one side to treat Hedra's head wound. "Of course, that's why they… I have to get to the computer core."

"Wait!" O'Hara called after him, seeing him rush off as he made his way back to the morgue area. "Captain!" she caught up with him, pulling on his arm. "They may be holograms, but they don't have any safeties. We've both seen evidence of that. You'll never get past them alone."

"Lieutenant, you're needed here, that much is clear," Christian flicked his damp hair back and walked away, but realising O'Hara was hesitating he turned to look at her. "Was there anything else? I'm in a hurry here."

O'Hara appeared almost embarrassed. "I thought I might be able to help you. I used to be a medic in the Marine Corps."

Christian smiled. "I know. I'm sure you'll get your chance one day, but for now your patients are your primary concern." Spinning on his heel, he made for the Jeffries tube, and only when he had disappeared from view did O'Hara reluctantly return to her patients.

UNKNOWN DECK, SS FANTASY

Panting furiously, muscles hot and straining, Lirik tried his best to keep up with the determined Romulan who was rhythmically ascending the ladder headed for the Engineering deck. Rung by rung, he was falling behind, telling himself that while speed was of the essence, break-neck speed was not if he wanted to avoid collapsing from exhaustion when he got there.

Pacing himself, limbs shuddering, Lirik finally reached the young Romulan who was poised, waiting, at the exit point to the corridor.

"You waited," he panted.

Stealthily the two men ran on tiptoe along to the Core, Lirik pulling Murat to a side corridor to make their final approach. Turning a corner they could see the Computer Core ahead. A T'Kani soldier passed across it in front of them, and the two men froze. But it seemed they hadn't been spotted. Lirik was surprised when Murat motioned for him to stay where he was while the Romulan did a quick reconnaissance. He peered into the core, looking up and down, then quickly returned.

"There are armed soldiers on a number of floors, including this one," he whispered apprehensively. "I'm not sure this is possible, Sir."

"Well, we'll soon find out won't we?" the Yeoman continued to pant, not missing his use of 'sir'. "I say we enter the core… at different levels. We stand… more of a chance that way."

Murat was almost handsome for a Romulan, and didn't seem as gaunt as most Lirik had met. Even his eyes had the vaguest hint of stone colour whereas most of his race had the singular dark brown iris colouration. Lirik steadied himself by the wall.

"You are absolutely sure they are holograms?" Murat asked nervously.

"Without a doubt," Lirik was still panting. "I can sense their photonic energy."

"Shutting down their programme should eradicate them all simultaneously, but first we have to get inside to the core control room. If I can cut power to the local holo-emitters, you might stand a better chance of getting up there," Murat suggested.

"Well yes, but-" and with that Murat quickly disappeared off, leaving Lirik catching his breath.

"Actually… I was going to suggest… that you keep climbing… and I'll kill the power," he muttered to himself, eyeing the nearby access ladder with some hatred.

DECK 39, SS FANTASY

As ninja-like as she could manage, Collard eased herself from the overhead conduit and dropped to the floor of the small maintenance shop and into a tight, low crouch. Although her movement was soundless, the pounding of her heart beat heavily behind her ears.

Tentatively, she peered around the corner into the adjacent control suite, and then looked up through its chest to head high windows into the shuttlebay. This was not the primary control to the Main Shuttlebay after all, but rather to the Standby area next door. Rising up slightly, she peered above the controls and saw gathered on the floor were all the Helan and also Ambassador Narli under heavy armed guard.

Collard watched in horror as the young Vostaline was grasped by the throat by one of the T'Kani soldiers, held aloft then tossed across the bay to the side wall as if she weighed nothing. Judging by the speed and trajectory and the resounding sound of the girl's spine crashing into a thick metal the Ensign felt sure she would be paralysed or killed, yet Vostaline merely rolled over and moved slowly to her feet. Before she got there fully, she was picked up by two other soldiers who dragged across the deck to be thrown down hard onto the deck back in line.

So it continued, the systematic and seemingly meaningless torture and brutality toward each prisoner in turn, regardless of age or gender, and the Ensign began to realise that the previous T'Kani occupation must have been unbearable for the people of the Outer Zone. She also noted that despite being brutally treated, the Helen didn't appear to be as badly injured as would normally be expected.

Staying close to the floor, she made her way into the booth where she barely peered above the console to read the main displays. She was hoping to be able to get a view of the main shuttle bay and then open the doors. Before she could act, she could feel a shadow pass to her side. Collard quickly ducked down, but already it was too late - someone was entering the control room door.

Acknowledging her fate with pride, she stood and faced her enemy. The huge T'Kani entered, pointing her weapon at her. Collard slowly raised her arms and faced the soldier. As the T'Kani moved to her side to guide her out, the Ensign grabbed her arm, twisted her body and threw the soldier over her tightly tucked frame with ease, disarming her in the process.

"I didn't win the Academy Judo championship for my looks," Collard jibed, raising the weapon and turning to face the other T'Kani soldiers.

However, instead of pointing their weapons back at her, the soldiers on the other side of the glass had each of their weapons pointed at the stoic expressions on the faces of the Helan and a sympathetic but bruised Ambassador. With great emotion, Collard threw the weapon to the floor, surprised by the kicking motion of the fallen T'Kani beneath her who sent her falling into the deck.

Collard had landed worse in the past, though her butt stung. She was amazed to see the T'Kani female soldier was now in a fighting stance and encouraging Collard to join her in a fight with a universal hand gesture.

"You have got to be joking," the Ensign said. But the T'Kani lunged for her instead, Collard's finely honed instincts engaged, taking the hand and the arm in a spinning motion, and using her opponent's weight and forward motion to send her smashing into the console.

Collard was amazed to see the T'Kani soldier casually pull herself free, apparently unharmed, and she wondered what it was going to take to uphold the name of the Academy Combat Team.

RUNABOUT HUDSON

"Is everybody clear, then?" Slavich turned to Yip and Reb who were poised at the shields and pilot stations respectively. Both agreed. The Commander himself had readied the tactical console "Then let's do it. Shields up. Engage, Mister Rebbik."

The Hudson was poised on the right hand side of the Fantasy, out of sight of the T'Kani - they had moved there when they suspected the T'Kani weapons fire might deactivate the forcefield with fatal consequences. Now they hoped to enter the ship at speed and take out the soldiers from within the bay itself.

Reb thought it was a gamble, but didn't see they had another choice. On the nod from Slavich he decreased speed and prepped to turn the runabout and accelerate into the bay. As soon as they were poised behind her, they all saw the campaign was stalled before it had begun.

"They've closed the door," Yip stated the obvious.

"Dammit!" Slavich shouted and punched at the hull frame.

Reb thumbed up to the top of the runabout, saying: "I'm sorry, I'm not going out there again."

DECK 25, SS FANTASY

Christian sidled along the wall, pressing his back firmly against it and turning his head to the corner of the corridor where it met part of the Core's deck. He was sure he had heard a movement from within the core area, and was bracing himself for a fight.

Reaching the corner, he spun in, barely seeing the punch coming at him. The Captain twisted away in time but lost balance and stumbled onto the floor backwards.

"Oh, my God! I'm so sorry!" Lirik crouched over the Captain. "I thought you were-"

"Ok, ok," Christian grimaced, surprised at the Yeoman's gall.

"Look out!" Christian saw the two T'Kani enter on the other side of the platform and pushed Lirik aside a split second before their weapons fired, feeling the deep wave of nausea as he made contact with the Englishman.

The two blackened, smoking impact points in the wall showed the blasters were not set to stun.

"You know they are holograms, right?" Lirik asked.

"Yes," the Captain said as Lirik moved to block the line of sight between the T'Kani and Christian.

"You go, Captain, I have my shield to protect me!" The Yeoman cranked the device up to its highest protective limit.

Christian knew that an environmental shield, even on its highest setting, would not take much firepower before it collapsed. Nevertheless, it would buy him a few seconds. He jumped onto an access ladder and ascended the core diagonally, disappearing out of range, only to see in the distance of perpendicular corridors around the core yet more T'Kani heading their way.

The Captain reached the upper most level in a number of dramatic leaps, and swiftly jumped into the core control room. He pulled out all the control chips he could find, frantically pulling on cabling and wiring - anything he could disengage - letting the whole gubbins fall softly into the surrounding fur carpet.

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the T'Kani climbing the ladder after him. To his angst, he hadn't succeeded in shutting them down thus far. Dashing to the viewing window for a moment, he saw Lirik take a couple of blasts and then eradicate one of the soldiers with a few well-aimed shots of his own. The Yeoman managed to disarm the other, before being pummeled and temporarily losing his own weapon. He was then engaged in a tight grapple with the other and pulled to the floor, where he managed to grab his phaser and knock out local emitters with his free hand - but there were too many to affect the hologram.

With all the chips extracted, and all the switches he could find thrown in blind panic, Christian realised he would have to destroy the core itself.

The Ensign's fight had moved onto the standby deck itself. Collard was wounded, but not finished. Though tired and staggering she would not give up. The greater number of T'Kani soldiers had dragged the Helan to one side and formed a wide semi- circle around the two fighters, much like in training exercises at the Academy. Narli, she realised, had turned away, not wishing to witness the cruel death of one so young, she presumed.

Christian was frantic. He continued to check the core, trying to see where he could cause the most damage, and a heartbeat later his eyes locked onto a number of isolinear rods and old-style chips clustered deep in the core's active centre. Mind made up that one of these must be the programme, he stepped out onto the narrow gangway and came face to face with not just one but two T'Kani. The nearest soldier swung wildly at him. Christian ducked then rose quickly throwing all his weight into a side kick, pushing the man backwards into his comrade. It was not meant to hurt, rather to put him off balance long enough for the Captain to climb up onto the hand rail and leap down into the core itself.

The uppermost transparent walls and sectioning of the core was like a glasshouse and Christian smashed his way right into the more solid structure. He hit his head and bumped his nose and already bloody knees numerous times in his awkward descent, leaving a trail of smeared blood behind him on the transparent aluminium. The soldiers seemed reluctant to fire up on him now.

As he passed the level where Lirik was fighting, he saw the diplomat's hands buried beneath the soldier's rippling skin. The T'Kani was shaking wildly, vibrating harder and faster before finally dematerializing in a puff of photonic vapour, Lirik dropping onto the deck with a hard thump and a loud moan.

Christian couldn't afford to wait, he was already on top of the first chip. Snatching it out, he looked up, but nothing had changed, there were still T'Kani approaching, some now pointing their weapons at him, unsure whether to fire or not; once they did, he wouldn't last more than a few more seconds at most, he realised. His eyes darted around at the few remaining memory chips, finally honing in on a single, black isolinear rod.

He decided it was either that or nothing. No holds barred, Christian kicked and smashed his way through until he reached it. Lirik had already despatched a third advancing soldier in a similar manner to the last. He was being fired upon by more from the approaching corridor and had no choice other than to hit the deck. Christian grabbed the chip, watching Murat fall unconsciously into view decks below, and yanked it out.

Instantly, all the T'Kani dematerialised. Christian slumped exhausted between the transparent sections, only Lirik's heavy wheezing and the tinkling sound of broken core remnants to be heard.

One blow. Another and another and the small, young Ensign finally crumpled back into the deck. She was weak and unable to move her body as she saw the T'Kani boot rise high above her face and then vanish. Her eyes flitted around, all the other T'Kani had gone, it seemed. The injured Ambassador was already at her side, cradling her.

"It's over now," he said as she struggled to appear composed.

Just as soon as the holographic T'Kani were deleted, Christian was struggling to free himself from the core wreckage.

"Someone needs to get to the bridge, those other ships will be on us in no time."

Lirik pulled himself up heavily. "Captain, we'll never out-run them at impulse."

Christian took Lirik's outstretched, bloodied hand to help assist him traverse the gap between the core and onto the main deck

"There's an emergency warp jump generator on this deck," he said.

"There is?!" Lirik was amazed.

"You get to the bridge, we'll get to Engineering," Christian dipped his head down to the stirring Romulan.

Before Lirik could reply, Christian had left to make his way to the main engineering area.

Lirik felt immediately depressed, he didn't like the pressure of climbing even more decks and at speed, and this was the most physical exertion he'd had in months. He knew his limitations, and wasn't as fit as he once was.

"I hate this ship."

With all the soldiers gone, on the shuttle bay deck Jackson quickly herded all the civilians out into the corridors, allowing the runabout to come aboard, the occupants pleasantly surprised to see no sign of the T'Kani soldiers. As soon as the runabout touched down, Warnerburg and several others helped close the main bay door.

Slavich barely had a chance to introduce himself before Reb launched into stories of his escapades. As soon as talk of supplies was mentioned, Jackson organised teams to take equipment directly to engineering or the makeshift sickbay respectively; the latter group instructed to bring O'Hara to attend to the injured in the standby bay.

Alone on the bridge, Lirik spurred his heavy, wobbling legs to the conn station.

"Bridge to Engineering, are you there, Captain?"

"Finally!" Christian shouted. "What the hell kept you, Yeoman?! Warp jump is at your disposal. Make it count, will you?"

Lirik could see the way through the remainder of the asteroid field ahead. Masterfully using the controls he slowly guided the ship between the rocks and finally the Fantasy was in open space. They only needed a short burst to take them to safety, all being well, the ship's protective coating would then hide them long enough for the warp engines to be brought to full efficiency. Lirik quickly scanned through the nav log for a suitable heading.

A few people started to emerge onto the bridge either via the Jeffries tube or through the turbolift doors, much to Lirik's ire - he hadn't realised the turbolift was operational. Murat had evidently taken the climb to avoid being captured, and Lirik had just made an assumption. A small figure suddenly appeared to Lirik's left from the portside corridor leading to the observation lounge.

Peering into the dim light he could see it was a Bajoran child, a female, dressed in a pale blue satin tunic and trousers with a matching alice band in her blonde hair, which was a little disheveled. She carried a small dolly and was biting her lip timidly.

"Hello, there. Have you been up here all this time?" Lirik asked in the kindest voice he could manage - he hit the nacelle deploy button and glimpsed on small visual displays from varying angles the huge warp engines being deployed.

The girl nodded and quickly ran to him, tearful.

"Yes, I've been hiding from those nasty soldiers," she said, unexpectedly taking his arm and squeezing it tight, grabbing for his other hand that was operating the console.

"You poor thing, you've been very brave," Lirik was surprised by the girl's action, but realised she couldn't have understood Medusan physiology. Yet she wasn't reacting – presumably because the shield was still working on its highest level. Nevertheless, her grip was surprisingly tight.

"Everything's okay now. Don't you worry." He smiled and waited a few minutes for the displays to read nominal, allowing the girl to continue to hold him while he operated the helm with his other free hand.

Right then, the girl seemed to stumble, falling towards the controls. Lirik intuitively caught her before she could make contact with the console.

"Whoops!" he grabbed her arm firmly but safely, arresting the fall with a smile. The girl's face contorted to an almost contemptuous look of anger. Her eyes burned into his, making the Yeoman feel like he was looking at an adult rather than a small child. Lirik glimpsed down at the console, realising that if she had fallen she would have hit a part of the console that would have cut the engines and stalled the ship's warp jump by anything up to twenty minutes. His mind began to wonder.

Grabbing his wrist that held her, with untold strength the girl wrenched herself violently free, her teeth bared as in a deranged temper tantrum. Skipping out of Lirik's reach, she raised her fists to slam them on the same part of the flight console.

"No!" Lirik yelled and managed to carefully lunge forward in order to push the girl to one side before she made contact with the helm. Lirik then punched the engage button, the viewscreen twisting the stars for a couple of seconds and taking them to safety.

"Mister Lirik!" Jackson yelled from behind, having witnessed only the vague outline of what had occurred from the back of the bridge. "She's just a small girl!" The girl heard the voice and ran wailing into the arms of the Commodore.

"Heeee puushed meee!" she sobbed hard into Jackson's tunic, the older woman patting the girl gently on the head.

Lirik flushed, thinking fast. "I apologise, Commodore. The … individual had a temper tantrum and was about to stall our engines…" the Yeoman saw Jackson's frown deepen. He laughed in response. "Quite by accident, of course." Lirik approached the girl, and grabbed her shoulder tightly. "I'm sorry if I hurt you, but you should really be more careful around important equipment."

The little girl abruptly stopped sobbing. Whirling around she knocked Lirik's hand from his shoulder, almost spitting: "Get off me you Medusan scum!"

Lirik locked eyes with her - although the words were familiar to him, coming from the mouth of such a young girl and with such venom cut the Yeoman deeply. He swallowed. Strangely, the girl then smiled, as if knowing she had hurt him.

"Well, he's apologised now," Jackson said to the girl, unaware of the tense stand-off. "There's no need for name calling. Come on, I'll take you to the others." As she guided the girl away, Lirik stepped forward to follow.

"What's your name, little girl?" he asked, intent upon her reaction, let alone her words. "Who brought you to the Outer Zone? Are your parents here…?" Instead, she ignored him, pulling on the Commodore's hand to leave the bridge as quickly as possible.

Before Lirik could continue his pursuit Christian exited the turbolift, placing a hand in front of him.

"As you were, Mister Lirik." The Yeoman spied the young girl glance back at him, smiling smugly, as she and the Commodore disappeared into the same departing turbolift.

"Oh my God, Captain, are you okay?" Lirik recoiled at the blood stained uniform, practically ripped to shreds and multiple cuts on Christian's body.

"I'm fine. But I'd like to have a word with you and Mister Rebbik later, I think you know what about." Christian looked around the bridge. "Any sign of the T'Kani ships?" he called.

A young man dressed in tight black clothing turned from the engineering console, shaking his head.

"Well then," the Captain, bloodied, disheveled, sweat-stained and limping, turned his back on the bridge to go to his newly discovered quarters on the deck below, "I'm going below to clean up and take a nap. You have the conn, Mister Lirik."

The order stunned Lirik a little, but the others on the bridge were too excited (or uninformed) to understand the implication of what he had said. Instead of falling into the centre seat, however, Lirik gently heaved an old woman out of the communications chair as the survivors buzzed around, eagerly comparing notes of the events of the last day or so. Despite the noise, Lirik barely noticed their un-Starfleet behaviour as he turned to the console and reached in his pocket, removing a small padd containing the transmission analysis of the message he and Rebbik had picked up earlier that day. He played the words several times, then waggled the flat device between his fingers.

"This message was from a young girl," Lirik said to himself. "A young girl… I wonder…"

END