Chapter 1 – The Cookie

"She's a good ship."

"I dunno," The customer, a human female, had a skeptical tone in her voice.

"I have," the merchant replied softly, "certain purchase incentives." He was a Kreetassan, and he glanced around furtively, even though they were alone.

"Incentives?"

"Yes," was the reply, "Follow me."

The merchant led the human to the back of a ship that was designed to hold no more than, perhaps, sixty people. "This." It was a lot like a joystick, with a few displays around it. At that moment, it was down and it appeared to be off.

"And this is?"

"Watch." The merchant flipped a switch and the area hummed. He pulled up the joystick and rotated it. "Now watch this display."

There were grid lines and coordinates – it was clearly an image of the immediate area in space. There were also red dots all over it, and the red dots were moving. A number, in red, changed, incrementing up or down by one or two or so. "What am I looking for?"

"This display shows all ships in the area, within sensor range. It also tells you how many are currently detecting this ship. Red is for mutual detection."

"There's a number forty-seven in red."

"Yes," the merchant confirmed, "that is the number of vessels with mutual detection. Now, keep watching the display." Another switch was flipped, and the joystick was again rotated.

As the human female watched, the display changed. First it showed forty-five in red and the number two in green. "What does the green mean?" she asked.

"It means there are now two ships within sensor range that you can detect, but they cannot detect you." There was another flipped switch, another rotation of the joystick. "Now what do you see?"

"Eighteen red, thirty-one green. Huh, I think the total is off."

"It is not. Two more ships have arrived here at the Perseus Trading Post."

"I see. What have you been demonstrating? It's not a cloak, er, is it?"

"No," replied the merchant. "It is an ionization diffuser." Another switch was flipped, and the display again changed. This time there was a fourteen in red, a four in blue and a thirty in green.

"What does the blue mean? And, uh, aren't ionization diffusers illegal?" the customer inquired.

"Not everywhere." A pause as the display adjusted, instead, to five in blue as the other two colored numbers remained constant.

"The blue?"

"Ah, yes, the blue means that not only are those ships unable to detect you, but you have the power to extend the diffusive field over them."

"I don't understand why I'd want to do that," the customer admitted.

"The extension of the field enables you to alter those ships' sensor images to the other vessels in the area. The correct images then can either be hidden completely or projected elsewhere."

"Oh?" she inquired.

"Say you have a less than pleasant encounter with five Borg cubes. Use the diffuser and you are, perhaps, hidden from one of them. Adjust the setting and you can convince the other four that the first one is, instead, a Klingon Bird of Prey. Or you can convince the other four cubes that the first one is you, and that you are the fifth cube. The other four then turn their weapons on the first cube, yes?"

"And I do the same trick on another cube, and so on, or maybe even get a second one under my spell and they duke it out while I go hide behind some moon or something, eh?"

"Precisely. Now, let me show you Engineering."

They walked together, and took a lift down. "Engineering," explained the merchant "is here on the bottom level. Living quarters are here as well, along with the shuttle launch bays. The middle level contains Sick Bay, a mess hall and the Armory. There are cargo bays there as well. The top level is the Bridge, recreation and observation, mainly."

"I'm no explorer," she pointed out.

"There are star charts, a database and a command and control center. There are also more common areas. Ah, here we are." Engineering was rather warm.

"Is it always this hot?" she asked, fanning herself.

"It is. The excess heat powers everything on board the ship. Now, observe; if you please."

The area was a decent-sized room with various displays. There were large tunnels leading in two directions. They were tall enough for a fully-grown human male to walk upright in them. They were offset slightly, with a bend near their twin entries. "You may have noticed," explained the merchant, "that this ship does not have what you'd call nacelles. Instead, power flows around these apertures. The machinery is in these tunnels, and their exteriors – and the exterior of the ship – are where the power is generated and amplified."

"Doesn't that make everything more vulnerable?"

"It does not. Rather, it allows for a lower level of shielding at all times. Now, you do have shields that can be raised or lowered. But with this arrangement, you're never fully vulnerable."

"Wouldn't other ships notice the shields being up, and think it strange?"

"This looks minor, and it scarcely registers on sensors. To other ships, this looks like your normal state of affairs. And it should, because it is."

"Which species designed this ship? I mean, it almost looks like an old-style fictional flying saucer."

"It's a Gorn design, I'm led to believe."

"Huh. Now, a question – let's say I wanted to stay hidden and go to the Gamma Quadrant. And I want to make a lot of stops, go fast in between, that sort of thing. What's the top speed on this baby?"

"Warp Eight. But the diffuser takes a great deal of power."

"How badly does it slow everything down?"

"Top speed with the diffuser deployed is around Warp Five."

"Warp Five? Sheesh, that's like the old NX-01!" The merchant looked puzzled, so she quickly added, "That was from, uh, about two hundred or so years ago. Maybe more."

"The diffuser is not for long flights. For your hypothetical trip to the Gamma Quadrant, your most reasonable course of action would be to travel normally, and only engage the diffuser on an as-needed basis."

"Fair enough. What about shuttles?"

"There are two bays in the space between the plasma tunnels – that's what takes the place of the nacelles. But you don't always need the shuttles."

"Well, there's the transporter, right?"

"Of course; it is on the top level," the Kreetassan confirmed, "but if you like, you can even land the ship."

"Huh. That's wacky. How?"

"It takes off and lands straight up."

"So it's like an old helicopter," she mused.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Just thinking to myself. Do go on."

"The landing gear is on the outside of the plasma tunnels."

"This thing has wheels?"

"Sleds, much like a shuttle. Given the size of the ship, your best choice for a landing is generally going to be in a medium to large-sized body of water. You could also land on a large ice floe, but it would have to be rather thick. Otherwise, the heat from the plasma tunnels would melt the ice."

"Why was this craft built? It seems kinda specialized," she opined.

"You have a discerning eye. I can confirm that it was a special order."

"So why didn't the original requester pick it up?"

"That person died."

"Oh."

He took out a PADD and clicked it to hers. "I've given you the specifications and my best price. Think it over. I'll be here."

The Perseus Trading Post was filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of exotic sentient species. Orions walked by, and their women produced headaches in other species' women, and desires in their men. The customer was not immune, and turned in a different direction so as to soothe her throbbing temples.

There was a tavern, and she entered it. She bellied up to the bar, where a Xindi Insectoid was pouring. A few clicks, and her PADD was able to translate the barkeep's language. "I asked you what you wanted."

"Yes, of course," she seemed distracted, "Got anything to counteract an Orion-sized headache?"

"Just a sec." The bartender produced a substance that looked a lot like cranberry juice.

"How much?" she asked.

"The minimum. Everything nonalcoholic is at the minimum. I accept standard credits, latinum, Daranaean Stonds or Calafan Los."

"Here." The bartender took her PADD and clicked it next to a device under the bar, thereby effortlessly transferring the funds. "Is anybody else in here not drinking?"

"Several aren't," was the reply, "pilots, of course."

"Hmm. There's a Gorn ship. It, it looks like, and I realize how nutty this sounds, but it kinda looks like a round sandwich cookie. Except Sick Bay is the filling. Anybody you know who'd know how to fly one?"

"That one's been for sale for quite a while. I believe it was custom-built."

"What for?"

"My understanding is that it was built for smuggling. As for a pilot, the style is somewhat unique, at least for around here. It's not likely you'll find someone skilled in piloting that exact configuration."

"I see. Know anyone who could wing it?" She could feel another headache coming on. Sure enough, an Orion woman had arrived.

"You'd have to check. Gotta go." The Insectoid tended to others, including the Orion who had just entered.

The human customer wandered around a bit, trying to dodge the raging pheromones. She came face to face with a sketch artist.

But this was no ordinary artist. The person was a female Daranaean, with off-white fur over most of her body, and light caramel coloring at the tips of her ears. She had two easels in front of her. She was evidently ambidextrous, for she had a stylus in each furry hand, and was furiously drawing away with both hands at the same time. Her PADD – the source of power and color choices for the twin styluses – was kept in her pouch. She was, after all, a marsupial.

Her two customers were a pair of Trill who were, apparently, married. "A moment! A moment!" called out the Daranaean. "I am very nearly finished."

In perhaps another minute, she really was done. The likenesses were a bit embellished, likely intended to be more like caricatures than accurate representations.

"Huh, I like it!" enthused the husband.

His wife frowned at hers. "I look fat."

"A moment!" the artist called out again. She adjusted something on her PADD and it erased a few lines from the woman's portrait. She then redrew them. "How's this instead?"

"Oh, that's fantastic! Do you take standard credits?" asked the wife.

PADDs were clicked together and the couple departed. The artist saved her work and erased it from the twin easels. The human customer sat down. "You're really good."

"Oh, I dunno," replied the Daranaean. "There are few chances to really shine here."

"Do you like to compete?"

"I do. It's probably got more to do with me being unmarried than anything else. Daranaean men aren't generally fond of third caste females who are anything but submissive all the time."

"Can you pilot a ship?"

"Not at all," replied the Daranaean, chuckling. She cocked her head to the side a little, and looked extremely canid. The human suppressed a smile. "But I can run Communications stations. My father insisted that I have a practical skill as it did not appear I would wed at the standard time. Plus he felt art was not so practical. I suspect he still does."

"I just thought, you know, seeing as you're pretty obviously skilled in thinking in three dimensions, that you'd be a natural at piloting."

"Truth is," the Daranaean explained, "I don't sculpt that often. Do you want me to do your portrait?"

"Actually, hang on." The human took out her PADD and clicked around until she found the specifications for the Gorn ship. "Can you draw this?"

"It hardly seems a challenge, Miss, uh …?"

"MacKenzie. My name is Mack MacKenzie."

"You have the same first and last name?" A fluffy hand was extended. "I am Crita."

"Nice to know you, Crita. My parents didn't name me Mack. But, huh, my real name is kinda annoying."

There was another head tilt. The canid look was again comical. "I do not understand."

"Let's just say I'm not a fan of it," Mack replied. She thought for a moment. "Actually, can you draw a logo?"

"What type of a logo?"

"For a – damn, those pheromones!" Mack put a hand to her forehead. "That Orion is giving me a monster headache."

Crita nodded and looked at her in sympathy. "I guess She Who Listens Well's concoction didn't help too much."

"She Who – what?"

"The bartender – her name is She Who Listens Well."

"I take it that's descriptive," Mack replied.

"It is," came an unfamiliar voice – the Orion woman.

"Forgive me," Mack muttered, "but you're giving me a serious migraine here."

"Oh, sorry," replied the Orion.

In less than a minute, the headaches were completely gone. "I guess that elixir worked. I'll have to thank, er, She Who Doesn't Talk Much."

"No, it's She Who Listens Well," laughed the Orion. "Although I suppose that's fairly similar. But it wasn't her brew at all."

"You made the headaches go away?" Mack was incredulous. The Orion nodded and smiled, and her eyes widened. Mack got a good look at the green-skinned woman's eyes. The irises were pure black. "You're not completely Orion, am I right?"

"You are. My name is Daniya. And I am half-Orion, and half-Betazoid."

"Huh." Mack introduced herself and Crita, and then thought for a second. "So you can sense emotions, and you can also manipulate them."

"Clever girl," Daniya replied. "In any event, She Who Listens Well mentioned that you're looking for a pilot."

"You know one?" Mack inquired.

"I am one," Daniya smiled.

"You know how to fly that Gorn ship?"

"I don't think anyone really does. But it can't be all that tough to figure out, I'm thinking."

"What interests you about it?" Mack asked.

"The whole thing is intriguing," Daniya said. "A ship that can't be sold, of an odd configuration, with a dead owner? It rouses my curiosity a bit."

"Lemme buy you a drink," Mack offered. "Uh, She Who – eh, help me out here."

"She Who Listens Well," Crita prompted.

"Ah, thanks." Mack bellied up to the bar. "She Who Listens Well, can I get another of these," Mack brandished her now-empty tumbler, "and whatever my two tablemates like to drink?"

The Insectoid nodded, her articulated joints a blur as she produced the requested beverages. "One Orion Headache special, one water with elekai broth, and one nonalcoholic tranya."

Mack clicked her PADD next to a device at the bar. "Thanks." She brought the drinks over on a small tray that the Insectoid had provided.

"I take it you're the one who wanted water," Mack handed the tallest of the three glasses to Crita.

"Oh, yes! With a bit of elekai broth! It smells good." She put her glass up to her face and got in a good sniff.

"Ah, thank you," Daniya took her drink, which was peach-colored.

"To intriguing, uh, stuff," Mack said, lifting her glass.

"Yes," Crita said as the three of them clinked glasses. She brought her glass up to her face again and licked the surface of the liquid a little, looking more canid than before.

"So," Mack asked, "Do you know anything about that ship?"

"There seem to be few buyers," Crita stated, "at least, they do not come for portraits. But I hear almost no one discussing purchasing it, although I sometimes hear people disdaining it. It is a rather odd shape and I suppose that is off-putting to many."

"Pilot talk says it's no good for maintaining your license. It's too strange," Daniya reported, "Not like regular shuttle or freighter runs, where you stay in practice with standard Federation designs. But all the same, I like the idea of something different. Regular freighter runs can be pretty run of the mill. Don't get me wrong; I like to make a few credits as much as anyone else. But the standard fare isn't too challenging. That ship, though, I bet it would pose a challenge."

"How'd you like to take it out for a test flight?"

"Intriguing. May I ask what you're planning on doing with that ship?" asked the Orion-Betazoid.

"It kinda depends on who I can get together, what kinds of skills I can get, that sort of thing."

"Is it anything illegal?" Crita asked a little nervously.

"Not quite. But I don't think any laws would be broken. But they might get a little bent," Mack admitted.

"Bent?" asked the Orion hybrid.

"There are a few details of dubious legality, mostly involving gambling."

"Now you've got me wondering," Daniya mused.

"What do you think of taking that test flight now?" Mack asked. She brushed a wisp of brown hair away from her face.

"I could, I suppose," Daniya replied.

"Wanna come along?" Mack asked Crita.

"I, oh, why not?" Her easels were given to She Who Listens Well for safe-keeping and they walked together to the merchant's area.

"I see you have returned with friends," the Kreetassan merchant observed. "What do you think of my offer?"

"I want a test flight," Mack replied. "Daniya here will fly the boat."

"And you?" the Kreetassan asked Crita.

"Oh, I'm here to watch, I think."

The four of them boarded the ship and ascended to the top level. Daniya was led over to a console. "Most remarkable," mused the Kreetassan, "Your kind are, well, you are purported to be irresistible."

"Yet you're fine, eh?" answered the Orion hybrid. She furrowed her brow for a split second, and both Mack and Crita held their own heads. The pheromones had returned.

"It is possible," the Kreetassan smiled an oily smile, "to run this vessel on an automated basis. And then we could … go down to the lowest level."

"And why would we wish to do that?" Daniya asked as she familiarized herself with the console.

"The beds are there," was his leering reply.

"Hey! Hey! You got a job to do, pal!" Mack reminded him, with a bit of an edge to her voice.

He looked past her. Daniya's brow was briefly furrowed again, and he seemed to snap out of it. "Yes, of course. Let us begin your test flight."