Free Enterprise

Le'letha

Summary: A Ferengi DaiMon steals and auctions off the famous Enterprise to a rising star of the Romulan Empire. The crew appoints themselves Damage Control, but there are some interested third parties out there…

Disclaimer: I don't own the Trekiverse; I just like to play in it. I like it better than my world.

ON WITH THE SHOW!

Chapter One: Double or Nothing

In which the superiority of money over weapons is debated at gunpoint, so to speak.

Idly, Varka wondered how much longer she would have to sit like this in the dark. It wasn't that she minded being in the dark, much the contrary, or even sitting very still for what seemed to be bordering on eternity, for, like the samurai of ancient Earth, she could sit for hours without moving a muscle under voluntary control if it was for a good cause.

That was the only thing keeping her motionless in the dark recesses of an alcove roughly chiseled out of semi-porous rock in the center of an asteroid, whose artificial atmosphere had been set at a truly abysmal template. It would be logical to assume that the controls had been set by the owner of this space rock, but the assumption, however logical, would be false, for Varka happened to know that the being who nominally held the lease to the asteroid was, in fact, a computer construct, set up at the behest of the Orion Syndicate, who in turn leased it out to smugglers of a higher band than the common whisky and self-sealing stem bolt black marketers.

A gust of sulfur- and brimstone-scented air blew its way toward her nostrils, tempting her to sneeze explosively and scrub every last trace of the stench from her nose onto her wrist-long diamond checked grey sleeve. Warned by the reaction of others near her, however, she was prepared for the breath of bad air, and envisioned it washing around her, enabling her to ignore it.

Had there not been a more-than-substantial goal in sight at the end of this ordeal, Varka might well have swept to her feet and stormed out imperiously, half-cloak gusting behind her, leaving the shoddy asteroid, its dubious (if temporary) inhabitants, and its truly abominable chairs behind her for good and for all. Even the gravity was wrong, carefully tuned to create the illusion, when combined with the curved walls, of being on the edge of falling. In an effort to calm herself of worries for the upcoming event, counteract the rigged gravity, and to present the distorted image of being totally in control, she had ejected a nervous representative, so heavily bandaged and wearing such an assortment of different clothes that even a guess at its gender was impossible, and had seated herself in an alcove where she could see all, hear much, and thankfully stay downwind of most of the air-filtration systems.

On the downside, she was already stiff beyond belief, lower calves throbbing in sympathy with one another, and the dark cloak she had cast over her entire body, wrapping her like a shroud, was beginning to stifle her.

Her orders had specified, albeit indirectly, total concealment of her identity and race with the darkest cloak possible (read: black) augmented with a holographic projector that, regrettably, had only a limited range. The device, which hung from a thick belt of grey so dark it could almost be called black, was about the size of her hand, and emitted a harmless radiation that was equivalent to visual static. Observers could detect her presence and overall height, perhaps making a guess at her gender, but details such as her age, race, and physical features were nothing but a meaningless and frustrating blur.

Finally, she moved infinitesimally; her eyebrows snapped towards her finely hooked nose at the sight of Ransk. How she hated the man, if 'man' was the word she wanted to use for a slimy, fawning toad like the DaiMon. Even now, with the key to the entire gathering almost literally in the palm of his hand, he was dashing around sucking up to the heavily disguised representatives of various races assembled within the hollowed-out asteroid, and, though it seemed unbelievable, distributing small objects, perhaps samples of some trinket or another. Was there no end to the man's gall? Although those he visited seemed more nervous after he left than before he'd appeared in their vicinity, she noted that they still clung to the PADD-sized devices that had been imposed on them.

Despite his noxious bearing and typical Ferengi opportunism, he had, however, proved an unusually stubborn DaiMon. Her superiors had thought it the best of luck when one of their spies in the Ferengi fleet reported the theft to them. Varka pitied the poor soul who had been assigned that deeply undercover, for the operatives, no doubt on loan from the Tal Shiar, who were as anxious to be one step ahead as the rest of the Romulan Empire, often were obliged to be surgically altered to resemble the race of their cover identity. Although a spasm of distaste went through her spare form at the very thought, she inwardly saluted such dedication.

A flurry of activity, orders snapped out eagerly, and a private delegation was on its way to Ferenginar to acquire Ransk's prize by any means necessary. Knowing the Ferengi as the Alpha and Beta Quadrants did, it wasn't difficult to infer the easiest way for it to change hands; it was well known that a Ferengi would sell not only his soul, but the souls of his brother, his neighbors, and his favorite pet for the right price. So the delegation went with carte blanche.

The second thing that most of the people of the Alpha Quadrant knew was that Ferengi could never turn down a deal, especially if they got to dictate it. And the third was that they talked very, very fast. The delegation was good, but not quite good enough, and before long, Ransk had arranged a compromise. Considering where he was dictating from, they had had little choice.

Thus, the secret black-market meeting arranged in an out-of-the-way asteroid. Thus, the set-up auction that Ransk had promised that they would win. But there had to be an auction of some type, Ransk had insisted. Otherwise, when they started to use his hard-won prize, every other culture would go up in flames insisting that there was now a military alliance between the two races. In the event of an auction, they would still get their prize, he would still get a lot of money, and the aforementioned cultures would nevertheless go up in flames, but it wouldn't officially reflect on their respective governments.

Not that Varka would have passed up this golden opportunity for glory, but she did resent, just a little, the logic that had placed her, specifically, in charge of this operation.

Talented enough to manage it. Inexperienced enough to be expendable.

What a set of references.

Against her right hip, her communicator buzzed once, programmed to vibrate without a sound. Varka's eyes didn't even flicker toward it once.

Impatiently, it buzzed again, and this time, one of Varka's eyebrows reached for her hairline, almost finding it in her tightly clipped bangs. Abandoning her statue impression, she drew her cloak of darkest red further about her, using the cover it and the natural darkness of the alcove provided to reach across and pull it from its holster with her better hand as well as indulging in a stretch for her long legs.

"Status report," she said quietly into the communicator, placing the first finger of her hand on the touchpad that would allow the channel to be opened on both ends of the connection.

Varka almost cracked a secret smile at the frustration in her temperamental right hand's voice, obvious only to those who knew her well and an ironic term considering the spatial orientation of the commander. Doubtless, the subcommander was pacing their bridge, growling under her breath at innocuous consoles and twirling her finely balanced and forged belt knife, a souvenir of a battle won as a young woman, at crewmen who happened to be in her line of sight.

"Commander," the transmission began, "we are cloaked. Shields are raised, sensors are at full power. We have swept System J-11V using the search pattern you ordered. There is no sign of the objective within the system."

"Traces of cloaking devices in use?"

"Aye, sir, twenty-seven of them, not including our own."

Varka performed a quick mental tally of the room's occupants, cross-referencing what she could infer from the other parties' entry times, manners, and subsequent interactions with other concealed auction attendees.

"That's one extra, at least," she said at last. "Possibly as many as five anomalies." She paused for a second, and then hailed, "Sub-commander."

"Awaiting orders, Commander." The excessive formality, Varka mused, was likely to get to Liarka Ki'riin soon, and resolved to end the conversation quickly, before her second-in-command lost her temper.

"Analyze the type of cloaking devices used." Difficult, if not impossible. "Then extrapolate which the Ferengi would be most likely to use, and set the sensors to penetrate those cloaks. Find Ransk's mother ship, and if possible, our objective."

She could almost see the look on Ki'riin's face as she asked the impossible of her. She would roll her eyes, run her fingers over whatever was at hand, and—

"At once, Commander."

—agree.

With the faintest of smiles, Varka didn't even attempt to soothe her subcommander's annoyance. "By the time you get results, this farce of an auction will soon be underway. I'll contact you if there are further developments. Sa'tkir out." She closed the channel brusquely and returned the little device to her hip pocket, repositioning herself for another half-hour, at least, of waiting.

It could have been a relatively peaceful half-hour, but such was not to be, for Ransk's circuit of the room led him inevitably to her alcove.

"Greetings, honored guest," the Ferengi boomed in his unusually deep voice. "I trust you are comfortable?"

"You show touching concern, DaiMon," she responded coldly, staying motionless. There was no need for her to disguise her voice—better that he know who he was dealing with.

The gesture did the trick. Ransk straightened up almost immediately, hands closing from their mien of false welcome to an almost official pair of fists at his sides. She distinctly saw him gulp. Even mostly hidden, she had that effect, and Varka Sa'tkir loved it.

"Commander," he said in an undertone. "I beg your pardon."

"Denied. You may have it once this farce is complete."

Ransk began to protest automatically at the degradation of his grand scheme, but thought better of it before a single syllable had left his mouth. "Commander, there is something important that you need to know."

Although he couldn't see it through the holographic shield, she narrowed her eyes, tempted by the idea of blasting him with her gaze alone, which she couldn't do. Nevertheless, he became, if possible, even more uncomfortable. "Of course, there's no doubt that yours will be the winning bid, madam, but, well, as it stands…"

She couldn't resist indulging in a bit of drama, and popped one knuckle forcefully. He jumped.

"Yes, well, the Ullians are offering, hmm, quite a substantial price, and it wouldn't look right, would it, if someone who bid lower ended up winning…"

She saw his point, and in the mutual interests of getting out of the horrid chair and being rid of the little weasel, no offense meant to weasels, said curtly, "That will not occur. Now begin the auction."

He chose to interpret that as agreement to pay him more. Let him do so. Hovering uncertainly, knowing he'd been unceremoniously dismissed, he extracted two objects from one of his voluminous pockets. "Your tools, my lady," he presented them to her.

Giving the items, a PADD and a softly glowing tag, a skeptical look, Varka did not extend her hands to accept either one. "Explain."

"Now this," Ransk obeyed, automatically falling into salesman mode, "appears to be a common PADD, when in fact it is programmed with orders to keep records of every transmission made through it, encrypted with the finest algorithms that the Selerines have to offer, on any market. It also has a record on it of this." He waved the tag in front of her eyes, and she didn't pay him the courtesy of pulling away. "Practically jewelry, and yet it serves an essential purpose. This, Madame Commander, is a duplicate-proof isotope of any one of several undisclosed elements. There is not one to match it in this pouch." He patted his pocket smugly. "Thus, simply but effectively fraud-proof."

Varka Sa'tkir highly doubted the legitimacy of anything a Ferengi dubbed 'fraud-proof', but she accepted the two objects regardless, seeing no other choice and hoping that the receipt of such would encourage the DaiMon to proceed with his auction.

Indeed, with a final secretive gesture, Ransk scurried off with a toothsome smile, to the profound relief of both.

Settling back into her uncomfortable chair, Varka activated the PADD she'd just been presented with and did a little snooping around the edges of its code while recorded announcements in unidentifiable voices and languages ranging from Ferengi to Federation Standard to Andorian began urging prospective buyers to find a seat and get comfortable. It showed no amusement at such a blatantly sarcastic statement. Shutting out the cacophony and ignoring anyone who should chance to peek into the alcove while looking for an isolated seat, she was caught between disappointment and appreciation that the code did seem, for the moment, hack-proof. She also noticed that apart from reception and transmission, with a side-job of recording, the PADD seemed to have been all but gutted of function, rendered down to the bare bones of its purpose.

It appeared, too, that Ransk did not intend to follow in the traditional method of auctioneers, for there was no one on the stand at the relative center of the room and no one approaching it. Varka applauded his intuition even as she regretted the wasted opportunity. Standing such would be an open invitation for a spurned bidder to set something fatal on a direct course for him. Instead, Ransk intended to run the bidding directly and totally by computer, for as she watched, green letters sprung up on her PADD.

Beginning at 50 GPL. First offer?

Raising one eyebrow, Varka did nothing, content to simply let the drama play out without her until she could see what was in the wind.

Offers came first hesitantly, then thick and fast, starting with such measly offers as 100 GPL but escalating quickly to 10000 GPL. Already several people seemed to have dropped out of the running. Irked at the fact that she could not see and memorize their faces, Varka hypothesized that they were merely spies for their various organizations, sent not in hope of winning the grand prize but instead finding out who would be in possession in order to avoid them like the plague in the future.

Impassively, Varka kept one eye on the PADD and the other on the people. Although none were identifiable, she was able to discern by relatively universal body language and overt gestures the play of things for those less fortunate. Out-bid parties accepted their losses steadfastly, protested to deaf ears, or attempted to sneak back in. In one case, which made for a few minutes entertaining watching, a bankrupted bidder decided that the man or woman in the space next to him had sabotaged his budget, and, using the PADD as a weapon, attacked not only the one entering the bids, but the entire entourage, and it took several heavyweight Orion bouncers, no doubt on loan from the Syndicate, several minutes to subdue him, dragging the suddenly unconscious man from the room. Where he ended up, no one cared to enquire.

As she watched, her communicator buzzed once, then twice in quick succession, followed by a final extended vibration to complete the agreed-upon code, which Varka had not expected to receive for a long time, if ever. Although she did not look towards it, a distinctly satisfied expression began to spread across her face, and she was once again reminded that she did not give enough credit to her second-in-command.

With the small fry eliminated, the war escalated. As the price skyrocketed, more and more people were forced to retire. Now, motionless save their eyes, they clung to their screens and watched raptly as the greater powers jockeyed for dominance. At one point, a long pause seemed to declare the end of the bidding. Complete silence reigned as everyone waited for further developments.

It was into this environment that Varka made her move. Required to submit no identification beyond the PADD's regulation signature, which could not be traced back to her identity or allegiance, she topped the current high bid by ten kilobars of gold-pressed latinum.

4,270,000 GPL

The first noise in a long while, a tense outpouring of breath from all corners blew some of the stench from the room.

A few seconds later, another bidder displaced her bid by twenty thousand.

Varka had the entire budget of the Defense Division of the Romulan Empire behind her, and she supposed that the Praetor could always try to tap the Tal Shiar for extra credit if need be. Actually, she welcomed the idea of DaiMon Ransk going begging to the Tal Shiar for his missing money. He'd be lucky if the feared sub-branch left him his ears.

So with no little confidence, she upped the ante.

5,000,000 GPL

One gasp from many throats, and Varka paid close attention to hands where they were visible, looking for her competitor, to no avail. He, or maybe she, called and raised, pushing the stakes to five million, twenty thousand.

The Commander was becoming more impressed. Was he bluffing, or was she dealing with another quadrant superpower? The Cardassians, she knew, would love to get their hands on it, regardless the price. And there were other powers that had been lying low for the past eighty years; one never knew where a Gorn or Tholian ship would turn up to muddy the waters.

This went back and forth for a few more minutes, the two competitors edging up the price by bits and starts, probing for each other's limit. Despite the slow pace, no other bidder broke in.

Now sure she was dealing with only one other competitor, Varka allowed herself a secret, private smile. She looked forward to the day when she arrived back at Romulus to hand over her prize to the Praetor himself.

Into the midst of her quickly realizing fantasy broke a truly colossal offer.

6,000,000 GPL. This last was suffixed by an extra dot, as if placing an end to the bidding by its declaration alone.

She sighed and shook her head, allowing the tension to build before entering her counteroffer. The budget was not going to be happy with Commander Varka Sa'tkir.

As the first 'going' popped up on the little screen, Varka submitted her bid. 6,500,000! It was a colossal sum.

Not a breath could be heard. Not one person so much as moved, although in her fertile imagination, Varka could hear Ransk convulsing with joy.

Going.

Going.

Go—

Just as Varka was beginning the congratulations in the privacy of her own mind, in bright green, an unbelievable message appeared on the PADD screen.

10,000,000 GPL!

WHAT? She didn't have that kind of authorization! Who in the Empress' name had that sort of money?

Before she could so much as react, her screen first went blank, and then began to spew a prodigious amount of Ferengi legalese. Her vision white with fury, Varka ignored it all, trying to figure out first, what went wrong, second, who had that much credit, and third, what the Praetor would do to her when he found out. She'd be lucky if she was exiled to Remus.

Without another word, she rose, dropping the PADD, still scrolling legalese, and tracker, now dark, on the floor. Pulling her communicator out, she spoke only two words. "Sa'tkir. Energize."

Thank the gods of her ancestors for Plan B. She was going to enjoy it even more than winning honorably.

Varka Sa'tkir was not above cheating to get what she wanted.


She swept onto her own bridge carrying a thundercloud over her head, if the reactions of her crew were anything to go by. Despite their discipline, all and sundry seemed to edge away from her as she made her way through the ship. All heads turned to her as the turbolift disgorged her, and the bridge crew saluted her briskly before they quickly returned their attention to their panels lest they be accused of being unnecessarily distracted.

Alone among the centurions was her second-in-command, currently seated in the central command chair of the little scout ship. Liarka Ki'riin greeted her only with a nod, and waited until Varka stood directly in front of her before surrendering the command chair to her superior officer. Petite, pale of skin and with reddish-tinted hair, insubordinate, and arrogant, the subcommander was a walking invitation to a fight. She barely dodged the requisite dark cloak as it was flung across the seat, leaving Varka in her simple uniform. With the chair now between her and her irate commander, Liarka regained her normal sassy mien.

"Are we off to get the slimy bastard now?" She didn't even need to ask how the farce of an auction had gone. If Plan A had been executed, Varka would not now be here, and she would be in a far better mood.

"With the greatest of eagerness, sub-commander," Varka replied as she seated herself and began to stare holes in the viewscreen, "but—"

She didn't have to look around to see the suddenly outraged look on Liarka's face. 'But' was not a word that the younger woman favored often, along with 'patience', 'temperance', and 'moderation'.

Lifting one finger to stave off the objections, Varka modified, "We will wait until negotiations are underway. Bring up the coordinates of Ransk's ship on the main viewer."

The appropriate centurion obeyed quickly, and the starfield on the viewscreen, interrupted by the rough image of the asteroid in the far left corner and the shine of the distant sun on the right, was overlaid by a faint red haze. Several points blazed brighter colors.

Liarka turned to her console, situated directly behind the commander's chair. "This is Ransk's ship." The appropriate area pulsed rhythmically. "We believe he is keeping our objective in this area." Following her words, the display changed to that of an overview of the system. Across the coordinate plane, a web encompassed a region approximately one square AU in volume.

"I dare say we can get more accurate coordinates directly from the source." Varka rose from her command chair. "Send the coordinates of Ransk's ship directly to the transporter room." Stepping off the bridge for a few seconds, she reemerged toting a slim phaser rifle the length of her arm. "And no, you can't come with me," she added, preempting Liarka's request. Smiling to herself at the look on her cousin's face as she reclaimed the center seat pettishly, Varka prepped the rifle, impatient for the brief turbolift ride to be over so she could enjoy shooting the audacious Ferengi DaiMon.

INSERT LINE HERE

"A deal is a deal…until a better one comes along." —Ferengi Rule of Acquisition No. 16

Ransk tried to avoid shifting nervously in his opulent chair. It wouldn't do to show apprehension in front of a customer, especially one who was about to make him so very rich. Even with his riches all around him, the bargain of a lifetime being made, and the security of his ship protecting him, he was still experiencing some vague disquiet.

He had just as good reasons to be uncomfortable as he did to be secure. He was bartering off one of the great acquisitions of the modern age; he was doing so with a buyer who would not give his name, race, or appearance; and he'd cheated the Romulans. That imperious Romulan commander was doubtless beyond furious. But now back on his ship, he felt a little safer than he had on that asteroid.

In front of him, across a desk carved of the most expensive, lavish, and wasteful wood his money could buy, his client grunted and shoved a PADD across the lacquered surface. Keeping a wary eye on the…person…Ransk picked it up and negotiated through its menu. And there, in plain letters and numbers, was the agreed-on amount. It was colossal. Several DaiMons could retire in the greatest of luxuries for centuries with the amount being offered. There were, of course, sub-clauses galore, defining how and when the latinum would be paid, but Ransk skimmed this with a practiced eye and found nothing amiss…that is, nothing he wouldn't have put in there himself.

The one offering such gestured with one hand, which seemed to Ransk almost…spiny. That was another source of his discomfort. He didn't know who this person was or who it represented. He didn't want to know. Then he could always plead that he honestly didn't know should he ever be caught. Although, if he was caught, his profit off this deal alone would be enough to pay off anyone.

"The coordinates?" Ransk asked, pretending to misunderstand. "Why, of course!" He fiddled with nothing in his pockets for a few moments. "I do believe I must have misplaced them, do wait just a moment while I—" He was abruptly cut off as the gesturing claw descended to the wood of his desk and began to carve patterns in it, slicing through the hard material like tissue paper.

Without further ado, the DaiMon 'found' the required PADD and handed it over, reaching for the switch that would summon his personal bodyguards to escort their distinguished visitor away from him.

A single bright beam dispelled all hopes of ever being able to use that button again. Ransk pulled his hand back, yelping in shock and shaking the appendage although it had not been scorched, so accurate of a marksman had taken the shot. The alien bidder spun towards the source, grunting.

From the door, opened unnoticed, stepped Varka Sa'tkir. She took full advantage of the fact that the person who had dared to outbid the Romulan Empire had just presented her with a full-frontal view and a perfect target. The slide of a finger, the press of a touch-sensitive button, and the unfortunate bargainer suddenly sported a blackened hole through his chest.

Lest this should prove to be not enough to kill it, Varka erred on the side of caution and obliterated his head and abdomen as well. Barely a second after the first shot had been fired, there was barely enough left of it to give off the smell of horrifically scorched meat and burnt stone, doubtless from the scales, that filled the cabin.

Alarms by the dozen had been set off, and were whooping frantically, resembling Federation red-alert klaxons only in that they managed to emulate a handful of cats in a shaking sack. Ignoring them completely, Varka leveled the rifle at Ransk himself, who was standing behind his desk, motionless except for the involuntary trembling.

Keeping the emitter firmly trained on the shocked Ferengi, Varka causally stepped over the smoking, charred body and picked up the discarded PADD. Scanning it briefly, paging through with one hand while her left one held the rifle unerringly in the precise direction of Ransk, she smiled, resembling nothing so much as a vampire out of Terran legend, and muttered, quite unintelligibly to Ransk, "Ah, Liarka, how lucky I am to have such as you."

Ransk couldn't think. He couldn't breathe. All he could do was be totally aware that he was about to die, and there was nothing he could do about it. Certainly, every Ferengi that might have stood between this crossed Romulan and his own life was already dead by means of that blaster she was holding leveled at him.

As it was to turn out, he was quite right.

Varka Sa'tkir didn't even allow him the courtesy of last words. She simply looked him in the eye and said, "Add this to your Rules. Never cross a Romulan."

He was fairly sure that that was already one. Otherwise it would never have been added, for he would never get the chance. Even as he opened his mouth to say so, to say something, anything, DaiMon Ransk, too, went the way of the unfortunate tycoon that was now cooking on the plush Turkish carpet.

Holstering her weapon (and resisting the urge to make some bravado gesture with it as she did so), Commander Sa'tkir gave the room another vampire grin, turned on one booted heel, and strode out with the precious PADD firmly in hand, stepping over bodies as she went.


No little time later, having scared off whatever scorned bidders might have dared to lurk around, Varka curled her hands around the comfortably padded armrests, caught by the feeling of digging her nails into deep fabric. She was looking forward to exploring the lower decks.

Beside her, appropriately seated at her left hand, Liarka Ki'riin smirked triumphantly at her older cousin, and for once, Varka grinned back.

Rising, enjoying the sensation of standing at the helm of one of the most powerful ships in the quadrant, she placed one hand on the consoles to left and right of her, nodding to the centurions now assigned there. Elated beyond her wildest dreams, she did not imagine how she would present this prize to the Romulan Empire. No, now her dreams were of truly owning this magnificent ship, and being given the official command of her.

Caressing the smooth silver metal of the Ops and Conn consoles, she gave the crew its first marching orders aboard.

And the Enterprise leapt into warp obediently, hell-bent for the Romulan Empire, under the command of Varka Sa'tkir.

(To Be Continued)