Chapter Fifteen: Double Bluff
Disclaimer: Let's see, where's that 'Transfer of Ownership' certificate? It's around here somewhere… (sets off with flashlight, but forgets batteries) Stupid flashlight. Where's that light switch? Oh, forget it…Paramount owns Star Trek, Star Trek owns me, I own an Enterprise figure and lots of books, Star Trek or otherwise. Really obvious where I stand in the grand scheme of things…
Author's Note: Happy New Year (late as it is)! And Happy Birthday to Me! Jan. 18! (blows on flute)—I don't have a trumpet, ok? —I've endeavored to answer the encouragingly few questions I received in context. Odd details, by the way, are simply a matter of personal amusement. Any other questions will have to be dealt with by use of the handy motto: 'I don't deal in reality'.
ON WITH THE SHOW!
"Captain, we have reached Anara V," Ensign Crusher reported, bringing the ship out of high warp.
"Helm, put us into geo-synchronous orbit," Picard ordered. "Mr. Data, report."
"The sensors are unable to obtain a clear readout," Data reported, plying his console. "There are deposits of indigenous metals that prevent detailed scans."
"Tell us what you can, Mr. Data."
"Aye, sir." Data's voice paused, but his fingers did not. "Commander, I have located Shuttlecraft Onizuka in the north-eastern hemisphere. There are minor energy fluctuations in that region."
"Well done. Hail the shuttlecraft. I don't suppose either of them thought to carry communicators," he added on the side to no one in particular.
"No response, Captain," Data said a few seconds later.
"Very well," Riker responded, coming to his feet. "Can we transport down?"
"I don't believe so, Commander," Data warned him. "With nothing to lock on to, the deposits in the crust prevent safe transportation in an area of approximately sixty-five square kilometers."
"Data, I don't want to take another shuttlecraft down," Riker said, leaning one arm on the back of the lieutenant commander's chair. "Isn't there anything you can do?"
The android officer cocked his head on one side. "It should be possible to coordinate our beam with the shuttlecraft computer," he said after a brief moment of high-speed thought. "Linking the Enterprise's transporter with the shuttlecraft's would, in theory, eliminate many problems."
"'In theory?'" Riker repeated skeptically.
"It has been accomplished before, sir." (Author's Reference: TNG: 'Realm of Fear')
"Fine. Mr. Worf, Mr. Data," Riker gestured, heading for the aft turbolift. The two officers fell into step behind him.
"Transporter Room Two," he said even before the doors swished closed. As the turbolift began to move, he tapped his commbadge and began a conversation with Chief O'Brien on the subject of Data's solution.
"Ready to transport, sir," O'Brien said in his cheerful Irish accent as the trio entered. "Um, sirs?" he added as they took up positions on the transporter pads.
"A problem, Chief?" Riker asked with a flippant air of solve-it-NOW.
"Not really, Commander, it's just that I'd prefer to transport you one at a time."
"Very well, Chief, that's an acceptable problem. Transport when ready."
"You could have warned us!"
"Well, you were busy."
"It's kinda nice to know when someone's gonna drop a building on my head, you know," Kuwabara continued at full pace. "I mean, just a couple little words, like 'look out below', or 'the ceiling is falling'!"
"Yes, but then Fenell would have heard too!"
"Oh," Kuwabara said, scratching at the back of his head as he puzzled that bit of logic through. "I guess so…"
"But in future, I will try to warn you…next time we drop the roof on your heads," Kurama apologized, trying heroically not to laugh as the latter half of that statement processed thoroughly.
"Next time? Whaddya mean, 'next time'?"
"It is becoming a habit," Yusuke chimed in from behind the walls of a nearby shack, where he'd been searching for rope. "What is it with ceilings?"
"I honestly don't know, Yusuke," Kurama admitted, managing to slip away while Kuwabara was distracted from haranguing him. "Did you find anything?"
"Sort of. Will these do?" He emerged from the building, shoving away the half-rotted door, and emitted a short gasp of laughter when his hefty shove pushed it off the hinges, raising a cloud of dust. "This place is a wreck!"
"They don't seem to have managed to reroute any decent building materials," Hiei explained, scrambling over the fallen beams and supposedly keeping watch over their unconscious prisoners, who lay in the omnipresent dust where the Reikai Tantei had dumped them after pulling them from the wreckage of their makeshift lab. In reality, he was scavenging through the fallen timbers for some as yet unknown reason. "They made do with whatever the real miners left here, and the Federation is a little picky about environmental hazards—not that it always does much. Whatever was abandoned had to be biodegradable. I'm surprised it held up this long."
"Reroute?" Kuwabara asked, seizing on the word.
"Steal, if it makes you happier."
"It doesn't. What are you doing?"
"Looking for something." The little demon continued his excavation of the wreckage, ignoring the wood dust that turned his black cloak grey, not to mention his taller teenage personal annoyance.
"These are computer wires, Yusuke. Where did you find them?" Kurama asked curiously as he helped the teen untangle the wires from where he'd tossed them over his shoulder a while ago and subsequently scrambled them.
"Go ahead and laugh, fox-boy," Yusuke said grumpily as the cables began to resemble themselves more than spaghetti. "I suppose this has never happened to you?"
Hiei failed to completely suppress a single snort of laughter, causing Kuwabara to look askance at him. "You can laugh?"
"Only when the occasion deserves it…and it did."
"Hiei, shut up! And please, don't ask. It's a long story," Kurama said with a distinctly embarrassed wince.
"Someday I will have to tell it to them," Hiei muttered.
(Not so much long as stupid, it involves M&Ms, several large boxes of matches that just won't light, a 'whole lotta Christmas lights', and not a great amount of plot. You may draw your own conclusions…or I'll tell it some slow day. That being said…back to the story.)
Trying to resurrect the original subject before Hiei made good on his threat, Kurama continued, "Where did you get the cables, Yusuke?"
"Back there," he said, pointing over his shoulder with a recently liberated hand. "From a set of computers…or at least I think they were computers. I don't think you'll be able to get any information out of them, though; they looked dead."
"We'll see about that," Kurama said, abandoning trying to free Yusuke and setting off in the direction he'd indicated.
"Hey, get back here!" Yusuke yelled, and was completely ignored. "Damn him, anyway," he muttered, and pulled on the waving end of a partially loose wire, succeeding only in pulling it tighter. "Ow! Oops, maybe that was the wrong way."
He managed to untangle one length after a few extra seconds, and tossed it to Kuwabara, who caught it with a triumphant grin for his own skill, and proceeded to tie Fenell's arms to his sides with a large knot.
"No one's untying that anytime soon," the tall boy said proudly.
"Good, but can you do it again?" Yusuke teased, disentangling another cord from the gradually decreasing mess. "I bet not—you ever heard the phrase 'dumb luck'?" This time the thrown wire hit Kuwabara in the head, and wrapped around it several times, giving him the appearance of being attacked by either a skinny green snake, or a rabid garden hose.
Muttering uncomplimentary things under his breath, Kuwabara tied up Nabuhari in the same fashion. "Now what do we do with them?"
"How should I know?" Hiei asked. "I suppose you could tie them to something."
"Ya know what, shrimp, that's actually a good idea. Hey, Urameshi, get over here with that rope!"
"It's computer cable, stupid," Yusuke corrected him, but he did manage to disentangle the rest of the longest wire. Grabbing Nabuhari by the scruff of the neck, he dragged him over to a conveniently if oddly located fence. Luckily, the Lhyarri was not awake to protest such rough treatment, and the immediate vicinity was spared his compulsive sense of drama.
"Wait a second," Yusuke said, pausing as he handed the cable to Kuwabara, who stood on the other side of the fence to help wind the cable around the post. "Wasn't he armed?"
"He was," Hiei said, voice muffled. "Knives. Probably ceremonial—the Lhyarri love their rituals. If he had any sense he'd have used a phaser or a gun. Good thing that's not one of his features. Nice working, too. He must have dropped them when we knocked him out."
Yusuke propped his elbows carefully on the fence. "Oh, is that what you're looking for?"
"No, detective, I dig around in fallen buildings for fun."
"Any luck?" Kuwabara abandoned his position on the other side of the fence, placing one hand on the top rail and attempting to leapfrog over.
Unfortunately for him, the wood really was old. It gave in as he put his full weight on it, sending wood mites, dust, and Kuwabara flying. The dust hung in the air. The teenager did not.
"Hey, idiot, news flash," Yusuke chortled, tapping him on the shoulder as the orange-haired boy lay full-length on the ground. "The wood's rotted."
"I SEE THAT!"
No sense of humor whatsoever, Kurama's voice purred in Hiei's mind, having been listening to a running account of the chaos.
If you say so…I think they've got too much.
More likely. Yusuke really ripped the guts out of this computer, you know.
I didn't, but I'll believe you. Can you get anything out of it?
Not much…I can get past their security codes easily enough—it's old—but the rest is missing a few important connections. I only managed to find what might be fleet distribution. Yusuke's ruined the rest. I don't think it was more than a backup for them to consult with on the fly. The Enterprise really did have quite a few ships to deal with.
I think they dealt with them.
And your proof for this…
Ignoring Yusuke's constantly self-interrupted just-out-of-reach lecture on the dangers of rotted wood, Hiei looked up from his search and closed his eyes. Beneath the white bandana, his Jagan eye glowed briefly. Riker, Data, Worf.
I think we're about to get in trouble again. I'll come get Yusuke and Kuwabara. The last thing we need is them saying something stupid and Worf putting them through a couple walls.
Hiei deeply regretted this, and Kurama's chuckle didn't change his mind much.
They followed, by chance, exactly the route the Spirit Detectives had taken in their descent to the complex, Data having unlocked the computer shutout on the shuttlecraft in, according to him, approximately two-point-nine seconds. Armed with hand phasers, they proceeded cautiously down the slope. However, despite their care, they did succeed in disturbing a handful of rather queasy and decidedly stunned henchmen, who leapt from their places on the grass to run a little too late.
It was the work of a moment for the three Starfleet officers to take aim and fire. Bright beams connected with the two fleeing Lhyarri and the one Andorian, and they tumbled to the ground, rolling slightly down the incline, stunned again.
"Riker to transporter room," the first officer hailed, tapping his commbadge. "Can you lock onto the three life-signs a meter from my signal?"
"Aye, sir, I've got a lock," O'Brien replied from the ship.
"Energize on my signal, then, and have them transported directly to the brig." There was, after all, no harm in being cautious.
"Ready to transport, Commander."
"Energize," Riker commanded, and the three stunned men dissolved into blue sparks, to be rematerialized seconds later in the ship's brig.
"Come on," Riker ordered, holstering his phaser, although his hand continued to hover over the grip. "And keep an eye out."
Data pondered this odd expression until they reached the ramshackle buildings. "The buildings appear to be of an inferior construction, reassembled from materials left behind when the legitimate company abandoned the installation ten years previously."
"That explains why it looks like an Old West town," Riker commented. "I'm surprised it's not falling apart at the slightest gust of wind," he continued, noting the wreckage of what had probably been a large building before gravity took its toll. "If I kicked it, it'd probably collapse."
"Yes, it would. You mightn't even have to kick pretty hard."
"Hiei, do you enjoy just appearing out of nowhere and frightening people out of their skins?" Riker snapped, managing to control the automatic impulse to yank his phaser out of his holster and wave it around.
"Of course, Commander."
"That's really annoying."
The demon nodded serenely, now seated cross-legged on the same heap of timbers previously observed, which still slightly resembled a building in a state of significant exposure to gravity. "Yes, I know."
"With the rest of our team, trying to keep them from falling into nonexistent holes or something equally stupid—now, don't move, Commander, hear me out. By the way, if you're looking for Fenell and, you'll be displeased to hear, Nabuhari, they're tied to a post over there. Stunned, or at least they should be, considering we've been zapping them with a phaser every time they breathe funny."
"Lieutenant, check it out," Riker ordered with a jerk of his head.
"Aye, sir," Worf rumbled. He drew his phaser and circumvented the ruins. Swinging his phaser to aim at the revealed prisoners, he pulled a tricorder from his belt and scanned them. "Both unconscious, sir."
Hiei managed not to say 'I told you so,' but it was tempting.
"Where did you get the rope—no, it's computer cable, isn't it?" Riker couldn't help asking.
"We stole it."
"Is that your standard reply to every question?" Data asked.
"Well, usually," Hiei said with a shrug. "Most people believe it—it's something we would do."
"Speaking of 'we'-"
"We are now. Where's Kurama? And who are these 'others' you've mentioned?"
"Two people who really don't need to know about Worf." For lack of a better option, and tired of the stupid questions, Hiei mentally 'suggested' that Riker really should beam the Lhyarri and Fenell back to the ship, and it would be an excellent idea to send Worf (the security chief, after all) with them.
"Worf, beam up with the prisoners. Keep them under close guard at all times," Commander Riker ordered.
"Aye, sir," Worf replied. Tapping his commbadge, the Klingon requested transport for himself and the two unconscious people at his feet. After a few moments, he slowly dissolved into the transporter effect.
"All right, happier now? What's going on down here? And no evading the question!"
Hiei shrugged slightly. "We picked up the two we went to get, flew here, got into a fight with Nabuhari and Fenell, knocked down a building, and waited for you to show up. Which you've taken your time about, by the way. Anything else?"
Riker collected his thoughts in the wake of this clipped account of the last few hours, interrupted by the blipping of Data's tricorder.
"Commander, my tricorder is detecting the presence of infernium in this area," Data said. He waved it around slowly, punctuated by varying degrees of intensity, and ended up pointing it directly at the chaos of building supplies. "Beneath the rubble."
"Beneath lots of rubble, as far away from me as possible," Hiei chipped in. "I'm not going near that much of the stuff."
Riker glanced around and noticed anew the lack of anyone else, specifically Kurama, in the vicinity. That couldn't help but strike him as a little odd, as he'd never, save for the little incident in Engineering, seen one without the other close at hand. This also struck him as a little ominous, since in aforementioned situation, they'd been up to something, namely hacking into the ship's database.
"Well, as you were so kind to mention it," –this was ignored in favor of polishing what closely resembled a knife— "Data, why don't you track it down exactly? If it's contained, we'll beam it back to the Enterprise."
"Aye, sir," Data responded, tricorder still making it's familiar noise, and skirted the chaos to get a closer look, as it was.
"All right," Riker started again, folding his arms and trying to convey the absolute certainty that he would get a straight answer. "You've mentioned friends" ("Hardly.") "that helped you capture Nabuhari and Fenell, and that you had to risk Hel's Gate to fetch. Who are they, and where are they now?"
Perhaps Hiei merely humored him; in any case, he received a relatively direct reply. "The Hel's Gate current led back to turn-of-the-millennium Earth, about three hundred years ago. Back then, we used to work with two human boys. We were sent on missions every so often to deal with people like Fenell, who were trying things they shouldn't where they shouldn't. Actually, they were the ones who put down Fenell in the first place, so we thought they might be useful."
It didn't take long for Riker to catch on, and his Starfleet training and human dislike of time travel assured his reaction. "You pulled two boys three hundred years into the future and exposed them to the present-day?"
"I just said that. Weren't you listening?"
The commander was forced to ask, returning sarcasm for sarcasm, "Have you ever heard of the Temporal Prime Directive?"
Hiei looked down his nose at him—a clever accomplishment for someone maybe five feet tall and sitting down. "Repeatedly. Don't look like that. We know what we're doing."
As of maybe five minutes ago…
He doesn't need to hear about little points, kitsune.
The devil is in the details, right?
Exactly. "Don't worry, Commander, there's no risk of them running into themselves out here, and they've been dead for two centuries or so anyway. They'll be back in their own time no worse for wear and remembering nothing as soon as the Enterprise can get back to Hel's Gate. We know."
When Riker looked skeptical about this, Hiei added, "Believe me, Commander, if they knew anything about us from the future, we would have heard about it—repeatedly—in the past."
"Where are they now?"
Hiei lifted one hand and pointed over Riker's head towards where the Onizuka presumably still was. "Back at the shuttlecraft, and have been for…" He paused. "Thirty seconds. Or so."
"What do you plan to do with them in the time between returning to the Enterprise and taking the shuttlecraft back through Hel's Gate?" Riker challenged, still losing the battle to come up with an unanswerable question.
"They won't see the Enterprise, but we'll meet you there." The knife reflected the sunlight briefly before disappearing. A second later Hiei vanished.
"That's really annoying," Riker muttered before joining Data in his scan.
"Where are we going now?" Yusuke asked as they reached the shuttlecraft. "Hey! It's on!"
It was. No longer was the shuttlecraft dark and dead, power hummed from the nacelles and within.
Refraining from agreeing to the obvious, Kurama answered the real question. "You're going home before we get blown up."
"Blown up?" asked Kuwabara excitedly. "By who?"
"No one, and let's keep it that way. One moment." He stopped short and stood absolutely still.
"Hell-oo," Yusuke said, waving his hand back and forth in front of his blank eyes. "Anyone home?"
"Stop that," Kurama said, coming back to life. "That's really annoying."
"What was that all about?" Yusuke asked stubbornly.
"Forget it. Let's go."
"Hey, where's the shrimp?" Kuwabara asked, turning a full circle.
"Up here, idiot," Hiei said from the roof of the shuttlecraft, causing Kuwabara to leap skyward in surprise.
"When did you get there?" he yelled.
"About a second after you looked away, actually." He landed on the ground and palmed the airlock open. "Coming?"
"What about Fenell?" Yusuke remembered as he walked into the shuttle and the airlock hissed closed. "Are we just going to leave him here?"
"No, he's already in custody. The away team showed up and took him away."
"What? When was this?"
"Why do you think I brought you up here by another path, Yusuke?" Kurama asked rhetorically from his seat at the helm. "We're already going to get yelled at for breaking the Temporal Prime Directive. Legally, we shouldn't have brought you forward in time." He turned his back on them and began manipulating the computer console, still talking. "If you'd come in contact with the away team, you would have learned much more than you really needed to know. As it is, you already know a bit too much."
"So what are you going to do about it?" Kuwabara asked belligerently, crossing his arms.
Kurama smiled rather evilly and pressed a sequence of buttons. "See you in a few hours."
The world dissolved into silver-blue sparks around the two human boys.
"—hell do you think you're doing?" Yusuke continued, then jumped slightly as he took in the change of scenery. "Actually, just what the hell!"
"It's two hours later than it was two hours ago," Hiei told him.
"Well duh! That's a universal constant! But how'd we get here so fast? Where is here?"
"Hel's Gate. It's a temporal anomaly and how we came back to your time. We're going to have to power down the shuttle quite a lot, so we brought you out of transporter stasis in order to avoid scrambling your patterns by accident."
Kuwabara loomed threateningly over the back of Kurama's chair. "What's transporter stasis?"
"Exactly what it sounds like."
"If I knew what it sounded like, would I have to ask?"
"No, probably not. It's difficult to explain without an explanation of the basics, and I'm not telling. Suffice it to say that you couldn't even notice the passage of time."
"We're going in there?" Yusuke asked, peering at the front viewscreen.
"Why yes, it is." Kurama grinned. "But we've already been through it twice—you were unconscious the second time—and we haven't crashed yet."
"Exactly. Hold on tight."
Yusuke and Kuwabara looked at each other, gulped in unison, and sat down on the floor. Kurama turned around to face them.
"Listen, you're probably not going to stay conscious after we pass through, and we're going to take that opportunity to wipe your memories. I don't want to have to knock you out. We're sorry, but you can't know about the future. If you remembered, you might make different choices and wreck the timeline, and you have no idea how difficult patching is. So…well, thanks again." He broke the semi-serious mood by shooting a sideways grin at his sulking partner. "Hiei won't agree, but it was nice seeing you again. We still haven't found anyone that gets on his nerves quite as much."
"Oh, for crying out loud," Hiei groaned over the chuckles and launched the shuttlecraft into the vortex.
Well, that was coherent.
Yusuke didn't really want to get up. The ground was nice and comfortable, really. If he moved, after all, the colossal full-body ache might just choose to turn into screaming pain.
He'd risk it.
The sky didn't really suit his mood. It was too blue.
Blue? There was something about blue… He didn't like it, anyway.
It ought to be…oh, grey. He was in pain. Couldn't it be raining? But then he would be in pain and wet, which wouldn't be much better.
This was going nowhere. He pulled himself to his hands and knees and focused on ground level instead, discovering that if he'd gotten himself royally thrashed, he'd at least managed to beat up Kuwabara in the meantime. His spirit power was pretty drained, so he must have used it up in the spat. Stupid word, spat. He didn't remember it, but he had a lump the size of a rather large egg on his head, and he didn't remember getting that, either.
Mmm, eggs. He liked eggs.
Well, he'd woken up first, so he won by default. That was the rule. Maybe there was something to eat inside. He'd go bother the old grandma in hopes of food for a while, and maybe even an icepack.
The fading pattern of fingers on his shoulder hurt too. He examined it for a second, and thought, 'stars'.
Wait a second…
He gave it up after a few moments. What was he trying to remember anyway? Oh yes, eggs.
"Mr. Crusher, set a direct course for Starbase 214, warp seven, engage." He punctuated the command with a hand gesture just in case the ensign wasn't listening, and continued, "Mr. Data, please inform the Base Commander of our imminent arrival." Picard finished issuing his orders and reclined in his command chair, paging through one of the ubiquitous, self-propagating status reports.
"Aye, sir," they chorused, and went about their duties. The Enterprise hummed to life beneath them and leapt into space.
"What's our ETA?" Commander Riker asked.
"Two days, seven hours, forty-eight—"
"That'll do, Data."
Data blinked, said "Aye, sir" puzzledly, and swiveled his chair around to face his console again.
Despite Worf's dire predictions, the Enterprise saw neither hide nor hair of trouble on the short trip to Starbase 214. If the Lhyarri objected to one of their ranking nobles being held on an alien ship, they remained quiet about it and complained only among themselves.
In any case, the largest disturbance in two days was the Astronomy and Physics Departments throwing a joint tantrum at not getting to study Hel's Gate any closer, but that was fairly routine; part and parcel of discovering something weird and usually dangerous. Usually, they were told 'no: it'll eat us if we stay around and poke it'. The only unusual thing about it was the fact that they were teaming up to create a joint sulk.
If Hiei or Kurama had anything to do with or about it besides laugh, they continued to keep a low profile. It was getting far too easy to blame things on them.
"Starship Enterprise, you are cleared for docking," the crackly voice of the officer in charge on the Starbase.
"Understood, approaching bay doors," Picard replied, standing 'at ease' between the two forward bridge consoles and nodding to Wesley. He watched calmly as the enormous bay doors opened silently and his colossal ship cruised gently in, passing the U.S.S. Spartacus where she hovered at port, tethered by airlocks and docking 'umbilical cords'.
The Enterprise bumped gently against a docking pylon and paused. "Thrusters at station-keeping," Wesley reported as per regulations. The whirr of the maneuvering thrusters caused the deck to vibrate slightly in an oddly calming manner, then died away as Spacedock completed their half of the maneuver.
"Captain, we are docked," Ensign Crusher continued, and leaned back slightly in his chair.
Picard nodded acknowledgement and congratulations. "Mr. Data, get me the base commander, and route it through to my ready room."
"Understood, sir," Data said as the door swished to behind his captain.
Captain Picard sipped the last of his Earl Grey tea, no longer hot, as Base Commander Tarvos' face faded from the screen. Quickly completing the authorization of transfer of the Lhyarri and other assorted rogues in custody to Starbase 214, he uploaded the paperwork into the ship's database. To his slight annoyance, it was punctuated by a slight interference pattern, which did not hinder the transfer, nor did it seem to affect the transmission of the documents to the base computer.
Hailing the computer, Picard requested the location of their demonic guests.
The computer chirped back, "Specified individuals are not aboard the Enterprise."
Picard frowned at the ceiling. "Computer, check again."
"There is no record of specified individuals aboard the Enterprise." The computer's voice sounded just a little smug at being proved right. The Captain hated that. It reminded him a little too much of Lwaxana Troi.
Picard tapped his commbadge. "Mr. La Forge, will you please report to my ready room? Bring Data with you."
"Aye, sir," Geordi replied, a distinct edge of confusion creeping into his voice before the channel was severed. Only a minute later, he entered the captain's private sanctorum with Data and an unrequested Will Riker in tow.
"Is there a problem, sir?" Geordi asked. "I was almost positive that my teams had fixed all the battle damage."
"We appear to have a problem with the computer's memory," Picard said, rising and yielding the computer terminal and chair to Geordi. Data peered over hiis shoulder curiously. "It can't give me any computer records of either Hiei or Kurama."
"None at all?" La Forge echoed in a baffled tone of voice. "That's not possible. Did you search the personal logs?"
"Let me try that." He typed furiously at the little keyboard. "Captain, could you authorize access?"
"Yes, of course." Picard pulled one of the other chairs across the room, seated himself, and swiveled the little laptop around to face him. He typed in a code and pushed it back to La Forge, who resumed tapping. A few seconds later, he shook his head, confusion evident.
"I don't get it. I know I've mentioned them, but there doesn't seem to be a single entry mentioning their names. Without reading every log personally, I can't verify the accuracy of the search, either."
"They wiped the databanks," Riker said from his seat on the couch. "But how, without leaving no record?"
"Conceivably they would have been able to delete the record, too," Picard theorized.
"Yes, Data, do you have any input?"
"More of a theory, sir?"
"Go ahead; let's hear it."
"I believe we have been…" He paused as if searching for the right word, and then turned to his blind friend. "Conned?" he asked.
"Do you mean tricked?" La Forge asked.
"Then by all means, 'conned' will do very nicely, Data."
Data nodded as if satisfied, then continued like nothing had happened. "Conned," he said firmly.
"Explain," Riker ordered.
"The files have not been deleted. They have been moved. Geordi, may I use the terminal?"
"Of course," La Forge said, and yielded the chair to Data in his turn.
The android's fingers flew across the keyboard. "Intriguing," he said as he typed. "It would be logical to assume that this is a pre-arranged scheme. The deception is clearly well-practiced."
"Well, explain, Data. I said explain, and I meant it. What have they done?"
"The files," Data clarified, "are in a blank space created some weeks ago during their orchestrated 'black-outs', as the crew dubbed them. While I was reviewing the databanks during that period, I noticed a curious vacancy. When I checked again, after a blackout had passed, it was filled. I believe that if I return to that computer space, the relevant files will be there." As he spoke, he continued to type, wending his way through the ship's computer.
"As I expected, sir," Data said as smugly as he'd mastered so far. "Captain, I believe they intended you to access this."
"How do you know?"
"It requires a level-ten code to open."
"Well, I don't even want to know how they managed to get my security codes," Picard muttered. He pulled the laptop across the desk again and scanned the screen. "Mon Dieu," he grumbled. "If this is their idea of a joke, it's a pretty high-security joke." Nevertheless, he entered one of his codes.
The computer whirred, bleeped to itself as it verified the code, and displayed several lines of text. The captain scanned it, snorted, and handed it over to Commander Riker, who had abandoned his seat on the couch in favor of looming over the desktop.
"'If you try running around the galaxy looking for us, you'll be chasing your own tails for a long time,'" he read. "'Starfleet has better things for the Enterprise to do. Catching up with us isn't one of them, unless you'd like to come help dropkick Koenma off the roof of his own Spirit World palace a few times for handling Fenell so stupidly. Don't waste your time. The cloaking device sensor down in the deflector dish might have helped…but if it's missing a few components, it's not our fault…really. Mr. La Forge can have fun trying to figure it out.
"'All the files relating to us are stored, or at least cross-referenced, in this file. We assume Data was the one that found it; tell him well done, and if he remembers a comment from four years ago, he's not as bad as a Vulcan—he's worse. (We know. We couldn't fool the one that admiral was talking about either.) Your crew's been doing a little research and taking a lot of notes. Science has worn off on them. None of it will help you track us—if it had, we'd have deleted it—but we'd consider it a favor if you'd just attach it to any report you happen to write and recommend that Starfleet lose it in a dusty file cabinet somewhere—and they do still have those if you look in the corners enough. If you don't, we'll stop by and lose it for them next time we're in the neighborhood. It's far easier to help out from the shadows if no one knows we're in the shadows, Captain: think about it.
"'If you see us again, it'll probably be too late. Any other demons are your problem. We gave up the job of policeman years ago.'"
Geordi chuckled from the other extra chair as Riker looked flabbergasted at the screen. "They've got nerve. Data, what were they talking about? What Vulcan?"
"I believe I remember the remark…but I am not sure if they mean it as a compliment or not."
"You'll have to explain that one over a drink in Ten-Forward later, I think."
"Yes, Data, your word was perfectly apt," Riker observed. "We've been conned."
Author's Note: Well, I'm finished! I did drop a hint for a prequel, but that's not on my schedule…unless enough people see it and would like it to show up one of these days. Please do not use that idea or the U.S.S. Spartacus—mine, mine, mine. I really do need the Spartacus for my next TNG story, and if I start seeing her around, I'm not going to be happy. But I'm happy now! I finished my largest story so far and I think it's pretty good! Please tell me if it is. (If you got this far just to say that it isn't, you need something else to do…) If I've inspired anyone to go read Yu Yu Hakusho, be warned…it's a little south of the stupid line…I still don't know why I like it.
Real Legal Stuff: Star Trek © Paramount, Gene Roddenberry, and Rick Berman. Yu Yu Hakusho © VIZ and Yoshihiro Togashi. 'Sleight of Hand', content, and the U.S.S. Spartacus © Le'letha.
(You don't have to read this, but this fills in for a lot of disclaimer material. See, I am a big fan of—er—creative recycling. Otherwise I'd write original fiction, huh? I hope no one recognized too much, though no one's complained yet.)
The Star Trek Encyclopedia, Version 1: (yes, the agonizingly out-of-date paperback from '94)
The Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual
Star Trek (dot) com and The Computer Core Dump
Tamora Pierce's Immortals Quartet and Street Magic
Michael Jan Friedman's Captain's Table: Dujonian's Hoard
Dafydd ab Hugh's Invasion: The Final Fury
Star Trek: Enterprise's "Borderland"
Anne McCaffrey's Acorna series
All The Myriad People Behind Star Trek: The Next Generation
Yoshihiro Togashi and Shonen Jump (VIZ)
My brother, A.N.T.
Special Appreciation to All Reviewers: (in alphabetical order…) emilychristinad/keepondreaming16, Ginevra, grayangle, Katherine, KHnews hound, kob, Kokoro Sabishii, koriaena, Sigokat, SonOfTed, and The Nth Degree. Everyone else who has read this, I hope you enjoyed it. Seeing as you got this far, I think it's safe to say you did. Thank you all.